Aug. 30, 2022
End of the Line, the directorial debut from documentary filmmaker Emmett Adler, charts the story of New York's troubled Metropolitan Transit Authority from 2016 through 2021.
Carrying as many as 9 million trips per day — approximately a third of all public transit ridership in the U.S., by some counts — New York's subway, bus, and commuter service was once synonymous with the best of mass transit: a "city on the move," literally built around and atop this vital circulatory system.
But for the better part of the current century, the MTA has struggled with outdated infrastructure and signalization technology, climate-related impacts, service delays, and chronic underfunding and underinvestment. Through statistics, interviews, news clips, and graphic images of flooded stations and (pre-COVID) overcrowded subway platforms, the film's opening sequences paint a distressing portrait of a system unable to meet its demands, but — as with so many essential government services — unable to do anything other than continue to try and fail.
In a typical documentary, an important and inspiring pivot would come at the start of the second act, which here seems to come in the form of a promising change of leadership. In 2017, the MTA hired international transit superstar Andy Byford to take the helm of the agency following his impressive work in London and Toronto. He hit the ground running, and within 100 days, his team released an impressive, well-received, and extremely ambitious strategy, the MTA's $50 billion Fast Forward Plan, to guide the agency over the coming years by prioritizing major investments, service improvements, and other upgrades.
Unfortunately, as most readers will recognize from their own work, it's quite possible to get the planning right, only to discover that the politics and the public perceptions — and the thousands of devils in the details — are much trickier in practice. From the moment Byford's plan was released, things ran off the rails. Rather than a reasoned debate over infrastructure and schedules, New York's notorious infighting between the mayor and the governor turned transit policy into a battle of egos, while fierce trench warfare at the neighborhood and borough levels further complicated even seemingly small changes. Once again, predictably, progress ground to a halt.
Byford's plan — and his credibility and authority — became collateral damage to a host of snags, turf wars, and whiplash policy changes. The film touches on a number of aspects of the plan but focuses on debates over whether to close and rebuild the L-train tunel between Manhattan and Brooklyn, one of the most crucial links in the entire system. (Planners may find the scenes of angry public meetings similar to their own experiences — this is not escapist film.)
By 2019, after being sidelined with regard to a number of key functions, Byford was already considering resigning; by February 2020, he was officially out. Of course, another shoe was yet to drop: Just days after Byford's departure, the COVID pandemic hit New York, taking the story from policy failure to utter tragedy. The film shifts to focus on the MTA's many essential workers who struggled through the crisis, including over 130 who died from the disease in its first wave.
While the film isn't an uplifting story of a plan implemented and problem solved, it's nonetheless an important one for planners — and anyone who cares about the future of our cities — to confront.