NEW YORK >> Zach Emig has arrived so early to pick up his children at their Brooklyn elementary school that he has turned the cafeteria into his ad hoc congressional campaign office, working on speeches until school lets out.
Christina Hart spent so many mornings waiting in the bitter cold for the bakery in Manhattan where she works to open that now the entire crew gets there early, a solution the owner cooked up so the barista wouldn’t quit.
And Matt Apter, a tour guide, has had to find refuge from inclement weather in churches around Times Square because he has gotten to his tour meeting spots well before his customers.
All three have this in common: They all use the New York City subway to get where they need to be. Yes, the same subway that has become the target of expletive-filled social media rants for its dependably woeful performance. The same subway with an on-time rate that has plunged to levels never before seen.
But the system’s descent into chronic unreliability has become so embedded in the psyches of riders that many have become habituated to overcompensate, adding extra time to their trips and leading to a twist in the failing subway narrative: In one of the more counterintuitive conundrums to emerge from this confounding city, the subway has been making people early.
Still, just because on any given day the subway may offer an on-time surprise does not mean riders will be pleased.
“Because then you hate that you’re there early!” said Adanna Roberts, a hair stylist who builds in an extra 30 minutes to travel from Brooklyn to work in midtown Manhattan.
While delays and failures — broken-down trains, malfunctioning signals, sick passengers and track fires — are extensively tabulated, no one (perhaps unsurprisingly) keeps statistics on when the subway gets riders to their destinations on time.
“You make that sacrifice to get up extra early to be at work, and if then you get there early, nobody is going to recognize that — but if you’re late, it’s an issue,” said Eduardo Andrade, who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and works as a custodian at Lincoln Center. He has rearranged his family’s life around the subway, making his two children go to bed an hour earlier so he can wake up earlier and give himself more time for the ride to Manhattan.
Subway riders have good reason to assume the worst. Despite an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars and an emergency turnaround plan heavily promoted by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who controls the subway, the system is still faltering — in January it fell to a new low with just 58.1 percent of all weekday trains arriving at stations on time. Weekends were not much better, with 64.7 percent of trains reaching their terminus on time, a nearly 10 percentage point drop from January 2017.
It is a reality to which New Yorkers have grown accustomed and around which they have adjusted their lives. Apter, the sightseeing guide, moved from Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, to Astoria, Queens, to shorten his commute to the attractions in Times Square where he spends so much of his time. But now, in anticipation of the increasingly fickle subway, Apter still gets up at the same time each morning as when he lived twice as far away.
“Of all the things that makes tour guides in New York City good, promptness is paramount,” Apter said. When his commute goes smoothly, that promptness leads to an early arrival — and a bit of a problem.
“I don’t have an office where I can retreat to,” he said.
To compensate, before he heads out to meet a group of visitors, he leans on his tour-guide knowledge of the city to identify churches or hotel lobbies where he can sit and wait.
At Sweet Corner Bakeshop in the West Village, where Hart works as a barista, the subway is responsible for ferrying the entire staff, from the baker to the chocolatier.
As the subway crisis spiraled and to avoid being late, Hart added a buffer of time to her commute from Bushwick, Brooklyn. But when the subway operated the way it was supposed to, Hart would sometimes arrive 30 minutes before the shop opened at 8 a.m. — only to shiver outside until the bakery’s muffin maker strolled up with the key. “It’s kind of magical if you arrive precisely on time,” she said.
But after spending too much time waiting in the bitter cold, Hart threatened to quit. To keep her from leaving, the owner sped up the bakery’s clock: Now the shop opens, the brioche bakes and coffee brews 15 minutes earlier, all to keep up with the failures of a subway system that New Yorkers feel they can no longer rely upon.
“Construction workers, bakers, nurses — everybody wakes up early in the morning, and they need a specific time to be there,” said Rodolfo Goncalves, an owner of the bakery, who noted that he has to pay workers extra for the earlier start.
For some professions, like teachers, nurses and home-health aides, where a late arrival is not acceptable and could even pose a risk to patients, being early is the only option. And looking for an alternative on the city’s other major mode of public transit is not necessarily the answer. New York’s public buses, which are operated by the same agency that oversees the subway, have achieved the distinction of having the slowest speeds of any large city in the country.
If Megan McCormick, a teacher in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, is late, her students are left lingering, waiting for class, she said, unless she scrambles to find someone to cover for her.
“Every morning I feel panicked. By the time I get off the bus it is such a sense of relief that I am finally in control of when I get to work,” she said.
To cope, she has more than tripled the time she allots for what should be a 20-minute bus commute, even if that means getting there so early that the school is empty of children. In her dark classroom, she listens to a podcast — one morning, she tested out some new Play-Doh.
“Might as well be Zen,” she said.
Some riders who have added time to their travels say there is a benefit to an early arrival. Dogan Baruh, 41, a real estate broker, no longer factors in a lunch break when he is booking apartment showings across the city because he assumes at some point during the day the subway will get him to an appointment sooner than expected and he’ll have a snack break. He adds 15 minutes of extra time to each journey, hopeful that he’ll find himself with time to kill.
“The positive is I get to potentially finally eat lunch!” he said.
Emig, a bond trader who lives on Staten Island and is running as a Democrat to represent the 11th Congressional District, does much of his campaign emailing from the tiny benches in the cafeteria of the elementary school his twins attend in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he sits after he arrives from his office in Manhattan. Surrounding him are other parents, folded into the child-size seats, similarly early, he said, looking at their phones until their children are dismissed.
“I remember a decade ago when you could more or less count on the subways to be on time most of the time,” Emig said. “Now, the worst part about it is just the not knowing, really.”