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New Yorkers are using underground Wi-Fi to vent about the broken subway — and it’s working

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The governor is declaring a state of emergency on your mean tweets

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

New Yorkers have known for a long time that their subway was busted. But until recently, they lacked a venue to vent their frustration publicly. Thankfully, Governor Andrew Cuomo came along and installed wireless internet in all 279 underground subway stations, so when someone is stuck on an F train with no air-conditioning for over an hour, or is forced to evacuate through the rat- and smoke-filled tunnels after an A train derails, they can do what they’ve always wanted to: tweet their complaints directly at Cuomo.

For the past few months, Cuomo has been unable to tweet anything from his official account without his mentions flooded with vitriolic New Yorkers demanding he fix the subway. A tweet congratulating the promotion of his new secretary elicits 20 replies, every single one of them about the subway.

It was the same story when Cuomo (or more accurately someone on Cuomo’s staff) tweeted about the Republican effort in Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare. Cuomo, a Democrat with aspirations to run for president, tweeted what he thought was a progressive and populist message, only to be met with more acrimony from subway riders.

For those who don’t live in New York City, this may seem like a petty way to advocate for vital infrastructure improvements. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway, is a vast bureaucracy and its budgeting process is incredibly complex. Also, we’re talking about the largest and busiest underground transit systems in the US — and one of the oldest in the world, too. What elected official makes policy decisions based on a few cranks on Twitter?

Well, Cuomo appears to be that kind of elected official. After weeks of twiddling his thumbs, ignoring the steady degradation of the system, or quibbling about how many board seats he controls at the MTA, Cuomo is finally stepping up and owning the disaster that is the New York City subway. And it’s all thanks to your tweets.

At an event in Manhattan this morning highlighting the MTA’s “genius grant” initiative to attract outside experts to fix the subway, Cuomo let us all know that he’s read the tweets, he’s heard the complaints, and he’s doing something about it. Cuomo declared a “state of emergency” to speed up repairs and procurements. He ordered the newly appointed MTA chair Joe Lhota to design a reorganization plan within the next 30 days. And he would add another $1 billion from the state coffers to the MTA’s capital plan, which has been criticized for prioritizing vanity projects for Cuomo over needed fixes to the subway.

We did it, everyone! We bullied that mean old governor so hard on Twitter he had no choice but to step up and take ownership of the situation. It’s one of those rare cases when anger and technology converge to positively effect public policy. USA! USA!

Not so fast. While it is certainly the case that the hijacking of Cuomo’s Twitter mentions has gotten under his skin, we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back too hard. After all, this is a governor who has nickel-and-dimed the MTA for years, and on his watch the subway’s on-time performance degraded from 85.4 percent in 2011 (when Cuomo first took office) to a dismal 63.2 percent in 2017.

“He seemed to acknowledge this morning that he knows people are tweeting ‘mean’ things at him,” said Ben Kabak, who runs the blog 2nd Ave Sagas. “So there's some awareness of constituent anger. I'm not sure he's put everything together yet though.”

Cuomo fast-tracked underground Wi-Fi, and cheered the rollout of new buses with USB-chargers. But critics argue these amount to nothing more than creature comforts that don't address the core problem with the MTA: dangerously overcrowded and out of date, with no relief in the near future. This accounts for the skepticism many are directing to Cuomo’s “state of emergency.”

Which is not to say the MTA isn't working diligently to make the subway system work more efficiently. It is laboring to replace the current fixed-blocked signals with a Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) system, which would essentially put computers in charge of running the trains, making it easier for the MTA to know where certain trains are and how fast the trains are traveling, and allow the agency to increase the number of trains on each line. To do this, the MTA needs to shut down trains for long periods of time, increasing delays and further complicating commutes.

Still, I find it slightly amusing that the effort to install Wi-Fi in the subway system has blown up in Cuomo’s face. Instead of downloading the latest free e-book (thanks to a partnership between the MTA and the New York Public Library) like the governor was probably hoping, riders are instead venting their frustration over the litany of delays and breakdowns they are subjected to daily.

And for once, they are directing their ire toward the guy has it in his power to make it better, the same guy who made it possible to air these grievances publicly and in real time. Cuomo gave the people Wi-Fi, and they turned around and weaponized it to fight for a better subway.