The Worst Commute
A snapshot from a future in which a billionaire tech guru has bought and "disrupted" the subway in New York City.
Zoe van Dijk
The subway is in a perpetual state of slow-motion collapse in New York, so one of the nation's most reputable magazines saw fit to publish a proposal to replace it with luxury autonomous cars, scooters, and an endless stream of advertisements. Aboveground traffic is worse than ever in LA and Chicago, so both those cities' mayors called in the preeminent CEO of for-profit future tech ideation to fix the snarl—Elon Musk's Boring Company is already drilling tunnels underneath Los Angeles, and has just won a contract to connect O'Hare Airport with central Chicago. The company insists the massive project will cost less than $1 billion, and is reportedly building it free of charge to the city, provided it can reap the revenue from "the system’s transit fees and any money generated by advertisements, branding and in-vehicle sales."
Believe it or not, that last bit of news dropped long after the author of this week's Terraform piece— Aaron Gordon, the Village Voice's transit reporter and the scribe behind Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter about the New York Subway—submitted this story, which, chillingly, imagines a near future in which the subway has devolved from reliable public good into a private, tiered subscription model service where, well, you'll see. Enjoy. -the ed
“Don’t you touch me, don’t you fucking touch me. I’m a subscriber.”
“You need to chill, man.”
“Hey, what’s going on here?”
“This fucking commie is harassing me!”
“Get in your section.”
“I’ve been in my section this whole time.”
“His elbow touched mine.”
And thus my commute began, as it so often has since TesCorp took over the subway, with a subbro in my face. It’s par for the course these days. Just trying to get to work when a subbro calls me a commie and next thing you know a station enforcer is threatening to revoke my pass. Well go ahead, fucking revoke it.
You know what I get with this TesPass? The privilege of waiting in the Commoner line for every third train, the only ones we are permitted to board, while we are forced to listen to their ads. This was the “compromise” when they were allowed to acquire the subway, to retain a freemium model so it was still technically open to the public. The rest of the trains are reserved for them—the subscribers—in all their bedecked luxury, replete with footstools, waitstaff, a bathroom, and a bar. And, of course, no ads.
“My elbow didn’t touch his,” I retorted. “He banged it on something and blamed me.”
“Whatever,” the subbro dismissed as a SubTrain pulled up, “I don’t have time for this. I have a subway to catch.”
“Remember,” the ever-present public address announcement, in a soothing quasi-robotic female voice, echoed, “ Who owns the press.”
“Fucking Subbro,” I muttered under my breath, unable to take his haughtiness any longer. I turned to go to the back of the Commoner line, which I only just now noticed stretched all the way to the other end of the station, meaning I’ve got a 45 minute wait, at least, to board a train. Another “perk.”
“ Humans are underrated.”
But the Subbro wasn’t done with me yet. “What did you say? WHAT DID YOU SAY?!”
Now I had done it.
“Did you...did you call me a Subbro? That is a slur, sir. THAT IS A SLUR. You heard him, right?” he inquired dejectedly from the station enforcer.
“ Remember… who controls the polls.”
“I heard him,” the enforcer acknowledged. He then muttered under his breath so only I could hear, “I don’t wanna do this, man, but I gotta find a replacement.”
Yep, I had definitely done it. Third time this year, no way I was going to be able to talk my way out of this one with the boss. I was as good as fired.
“Have a nice day, commie,” the Subbro spat as he whirled around and waltzed onto the SubTrain.
The enforcer grabbed my elbow--the irony--and dragged me through the SubLounge. A dozen subbros noshed on finger foods in a bespoke hipster bar setting, gazing at their phones and talking while chewing. Serving them were other commies, men and women of various ages and races wearing jumpsuits the color of stainless steel. Instead of the PA announcements, soft techno beats, which I immediately recognized as the music by Dirtes, TesCorp’s founder Langdon Tess’s wife, flowed through the room. Every 15 seconds, the soft hum of a Hyperloop pod could be heard whooshing just above us. A gleaming flamethrower encased in glass rested in the middle of the room like a museum exhibit. Then the enforcer pushed me out the door on the other side.
I emerged into an all-stainless steel room. In the center, a plain stainless steel arm supported a digital screen. The door I had just entered through was also stainless steel—this guy have a fetish or something?—which I only realized when it closed behind me.
The screen turned on. Langdon Tess appeared on the screen: short-cropped hair, artificially bulky physique, thick neck, and the facial hair growth of an apathetic teenager.
“Hello, fellow TesCorp rider,” he began with a pleasant yet stern disposition. “If you’re watching this, that means you’ve violated the TesCorp Terms of Service for Common Customers by using vulgar language or a racial epithet. By viewing this video message, you agree with this finding.”
The first time this happened, I couldn’t for the life of me remember signing any Terms of Service. I remembered going to the TesCorp Center at Fulton Street years ago. It was a mob scene, millions of people needed to get one in only six months. Total madhouse. I traded in my MetroCard, got a TesPass, and then the agent told me to sign a tablet with a blank white screen. I did. Everybody did.
“Per the Terms of Service, TesCorp reserves the right to protect the rights, property, and safety of Subscribers as we reasonably believe is necessary. Common Customers who violate the Terms of Service will have their accounts suspended for 24 hours.”
Sounded innocent enough the first time—if a pain in the ass to get around the city—until you realize you can’t exit the station without an active TesPass.
“While your account is suspended, you will fulfill TesCorp support roles. In order to have your account reactivated, you must identify another Common Customer who has violated the Terms of Service before you will be excused from your duties.”
TesCorp doesn’t make money off the subscriptions, or the TesPasses; not a lot, anyways. Those are just to make sure everybody’s in their place. No, TesCorp looked at the MTA’s books and saw the deal. Wages. Pensions. Health Care. Employees. That’s where the money went.
Everybody laughed at Tess when he blabbered on and poured billions into ill-advised ventures that were what could generously be called “reinventions” of the subway, the bus, the car. Everybody mocked him as he expounded on the virtues of a single vehicle transporting multiple people along a fixed route making pre-determined stops, sounding like stuffy, pompous Valley prick in the process. We all had a laugh at his expense.
But then he quietly talked about a new model for work, where the company gets a rotating, limitless supply of free labor. A lot of us stopped laughing then, but not enough.
The door re-opened and the enforcer, now wearing street clothes, gave me the silver jumpsuit he had been wearing.
“Sorry, man,” he began apologetically. “But my 24 just hit. I gotta get home.”
“At least you tapped quickly. This is the third time this year I’ve been hit,” I lamented. I paused as I contemplated what lay ahead: calling subbros “Sir” and subbrettes “Ma’am,” serving them drinks, cleaning their toilets, making sure commies don’t hop the line, all so I don’t get hit with an additional 24. “Last two I was on for almost 48.”
“Oof. What’d you do?”
I shrugged, in a braggy sort of way. “Spilled a beer on a Subscriber.” I couldn’t help but smile. “Accidentally.”
The former enforcer, now just a man with a family and problems, let out a deep chuckle. “Accidents happen.”
“Man,” I let out the biggest sigh of the day, and my day hadn’t even started yet. “My boss is gonna kill me, if he even bothers with me.”
“Oh, no worries,” the man riffed. “You work for TesCorp now!” We both let out a good laugh.
“ Remember,” the PA voice boomed once more, “ Who laughs last.”