For what it’s worth: The Second Avenue subway is not so luxe after all

Second Avenue Subway
Second Avenue Subway

When the Second Avenue subway debuted at the beginning of this year, it was met with much fanfare. The multi-billion dollar project was a long time coming, oft joked about and essentially written off like an urban legend. Area residents rejoiced after years of waiting for the steel Godot, and more recently, having to put up with construction noise and dirt. Displaced retailers could final settle in and cordoned off streets were thankfully sans obstruction at last.

It was heralded as a true game changer — something that would bridge the divide between the two Upper East Sides – the tony area west of Lexington and the less-than-ritzy nabe west of the avenue. Even those who had long sworn off subways for Uber wanted a ride. It was like being part of history. Post-election our nation was divided, but at least New York City was more connected than ever before.

There were other benefits as well. After just days in existence, real estate firms were quick to point out that its presence was already raising rents and property values. Whispers suggested retailers and restaurants would flock to Yorkville as well. Developers would head east. Somehow riding the Q seemed like a classy and cultured thing to do. Arguably our most luxe line — brand new, super costly, art-ridden with custom graphics — swiping into the Q seemed less about getting to one’s destination and more about enjoying the ride.

As someone who lives on the “wrong” side of the UES tracks (First Avenue) I was thrilled. Westside friends now had no excuse not to come visit, and I had a new direct route to many places without having to make a dreaded subway transfer. I was as eager to see it open as I was to see Hamilton! The first week it ran, I headed down with the goal of inhaling that new subway car smell.

With all these expectations, I am now sorely disappointed because of a few huge flaws in the 86th Street station that make it sub-par to most other stations. What follows will be a completely neurotic rant, but isn’t New York a city for neurotics and complainers anyway?

So getting down to business: the 86th Street station is the only station I’ve come across — aside from the 94th Street entrance of the Q — that offers no stairs.  Instead I was greeted by two menacing looking escalators, seemingly far steeper than any I had encountered. I cannot take escalators down due to a neurological problem I developed from a long battle with chronic Lyme Disease. But no matter – pretty much every subway station in the city has stairs so I rarely think about it. The MTA workers manning entrances pointed to an elevator across the street, my only other option.

A long line of people must have had the same idea – disabled or not – and it took two rounds to finally find space in one.

We descended. If NYC were Dante’s Inferno the Q station resided in the very last circle. It is one of the deepest stations in NYC and as such, descending via elevator — one with clear glass walls so you see the concrete encasing you – can be extremely panic-inducing.

I kept fixating on what would happen if the elevator got stuck. If we stopped in the shaft there’d be absolutely no exit. The minutes-long ride felt like hours and I imagined emergency workers trying to somehow rappel down the shaft to carry us up. This was not an “only in NY” story I’d revel in telling at future dinner parties. Post-panic attack, the Q suddenly didn’t seem so luxurious anymore.

Upon reaching the first level, one could either take another elevator down (no thanks), another escalator down (no can do) or use the stairs.

Not a piece of garbage marred the station floors, “Pizza Rat” was nowhere to be seen and the scent of urine didn’t waft through any of the three new stations. Still, I was dejected.

Another barb: while there are screens which show how far away the next approaching train is – which are common in most stations now – on 86th Street they are on the street, not on the actual train platform. So once down, there’s no way to know when the next subway will arrive.

What I had so sorely anticipated was now something I have come to dread. It just seems so foolish – such an oversight – for this uber-expensive project that was planned for decades to overlook stairs.

When I finally mentioned this setback to others, thinking it was just me who was freaked out, I was surprised so many agreed. Turns out those steep escalators are hard for others to handle, even those without a disability. The other day, I saw a woman in heels bravely attempt to step onto the escalator, but after a few tries she gave up, and went across the street to wait for the elevator.

Later in the month, the figurative shine wore off even more. Heading to an appointment without a minute to spare, I was greeted by caution tape outside the elevator. The brandy dandy new elevator was already out of service! This did not bode well for the future of Q riding. There was simply no other way down so I had to huff it to the 6 in a slushy mess. A sign posted outside the station later that night said it’d be fixed within a day. I avoided the Q until that day, but sadly it wasn’t fixed for over a week.

Nothing in New York City is ever easy, but apparently we simply can’t ever have nice things.

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  • Johnray

    I am sad to hear about the writer’s bout with Lyme desease–a terrible, debilitating desease. However, every criticism on this article, other than the lack of more than one elevator and, possibly, the lengthy break down of that same lift, is ridiculously trivial.

    The 86th Street station has some of the most beautiful art in the entire subway system. It’s clean and quite airy and large. I quite like it.

    Sure, the countdown clocks don’t yet work, but they will. There needs to be new switch infrastructure along the entire line for them to work. These things take time. And griping about no stairs–can we take a vote on who prefers stairs to escalators in such a deep station?

    In my view, this is a list of first-world problems from someone who lives in a neighborhood dripping with privelege and it has little merit.

    I am glad the writer is self aware enough to recognize the neurotic nature of these complaints. But just because you live in New York doesn’t give one the excuse to be “neurotic.”

    The station is nice. The neighborhood is nice. Deal with it.

  • Red Allover

    It was clearly unwise to make access to the street via escalators and elevators only.
    They are always breaking down.
    Common sense would seem to dictate the need for stairs for emergency situations.
    What happens when there is a power blackout, fire or flood?
    And BTW, far from “dripping in privilege,” there are plenty of poor and working people in Yorkville
    –I am one myself.

    • Barry Richard

      If the escalator broke down, they wouldn’t be running and unless they are being repaired and closed off, they can be used as regular stairs. The mere fact that the tunnels are so deep down dictates the reason why there aren’t stairs in the first place.

  • Matthew Rizzo

    Oh please. I’m sorry you have had a tough time in life, but complaining that the elevator is scary? And that there aren’t stairs? You see how far down the escalator is. People would NEVER walk 10 flights of stairs over taking an escalator (I counted 60 steps while walking up the moving escalator, so it’s a guess on how many stair there would be, but you get the point).

    This is the quintessential “I want to complain about something just to complain”. It’s a nice station. It’s clean, it connects the east and west. And I don’t want to sound insensitive, but you are among the supermajority that cannot use an escalator. And there is an elevator. So really, aside from the fact that there is not digital schedule (you’re right about that), there’s nothing wrong with the subway. Plus it’s only a few months old, so I assume they will add them eventually.

  • Gary Michael