On Sunday, September 25, UnionDocs and the Metropolitian Transportation Authority (MTA) co-hosted a screening and discussion of videos from the MTA’s YouTube channel. Since its launch last January, the channel has logged over 900,000 views and now features nearly 100 videos surveying MTA operations from many angles. Sunday night’s discussion, titled “Telling Transit Tales,” was organized and moderated by curator and film scholar Chi-hui Yang and included MTA Director of Media Relations Jeremy Soffin and Manager of Strategic Initiatives and Chief Videographer JP Chan.
Soffin and Chan have integrated the role and purpose of the YouTube channel with the MTA’s larger public relations overhaul. Working on a modest budget, they conceptualized and created what they term “leaner” videos. Moving the MTA away from more corporate documentary styles, Chan and Soffin replaced the talking heads with whomever was in charge of the specific project, be it disaster clean-up or changing the lights in the ceiling of Grand Central Station. They place an increased value on cinematic aesthetics, shooting only in HD and at 24 frames per second, and capitalize on the MTA’s expansive resources both in content and dramatic location. They hope the feel, length and watchability of these pieces will set them apart from other video content that the MTA has produced in the past, and corporate video more generally, expanding the audience and increasing transparency into the bureaucracy of the MTA.
The conversation was arranged in three sections, each following a large theme within the MTA’s body of work. The first section of films was entitled “Why Things Are.” These offer an opportunity for the MTA to visually explain new policies and introduce new key-figures to the public. When Jay Walder, the new (at the time) CEO took charge, he used an MTA video as a way to discuss both his background and his specific vision for the future of the MTA. This type of video is also used for direct and at times apologetic explanations for shifts in service. A recent example came after Hurricane Irene, when Chan traveled north to meet with Frederick Chidester, the line superintendent for Metro-North Railroad’s Hudson and West of Hudson Lines. The visual narrative paired with Chidester’s explanation becomes an incredibly successful method of explaining why the tracks on the Port Jervis line will take months to fix.
The second section, “How Things Work,” explores unsung and inaccessible spaces and topics by tapping the knowledge of MTA employees. This ranges from an animated short that explains the origins of the subway annotation system to a number of city symphony-style pieces that explore the city. This series, Chan noted, is where he tries to bring a narrative bend to the films. For example, by closely documenting the progress of the Second Avenue subway, Chan reveals the nuts-and-bolts story of how subway construction happens while also informing viewers about the MTA’s broader service expansion plans.
The final section, “The Culture, History and People of the MTA,” includes archival films, character studies and event pieces. Whether atop the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge banding young Peregrine falcons or tracing the route of the New York City Marathon, this series opens windows into the wide variety of activities that take place in MTA-controlled spaces. When asked about these pieces, Chan lit up, promising that more character studies are in the works and will explore topics in greater depth. He listed the archival films as his personal favorites, citing their ability to let the MTA show a lighter side, and noted that they are among the most popular videos on the channel — an educational video about the consequences of graffiti vandalism from the 1980s is the second most-viewed entry, and has been frequently re-blogged (often by pro-graffiti websites, and often commenting on its near-ridiculous message and soundtrack).
At the end of the day, the MTA’s YouTube channel is all about being “cheap and cheerful” and bringing a more intimate understanding of one of New York City largest and most important agencies. That importance was something both the audience and the panel spoke of often, and not just because so many of us rely on the system to travel through the city. New Yorkers identify themselves with the subway lines they use, and track neighborhood transition by when they’ve frequented which stops. What does it mean to live off the L line today as opposed to 20 years ago? How do you experience the city differently if you travel across a bridge every day rather than take the train? The MTA helps define how we live and move in our city, and the agency’s effort to make the mechanics and motivations of their work accessible through a platform like YouTube is worth noticing.
Meg Kelly is a researcher and designer. As a Fulbright Fellow, she recently completed “Tracing Shifts of Place: Migration, Identity and Landscape in Dharavi,” a year-long oral history project that investigated and documented the physical, political and cultural landscape of one of Asia’s largest and most complex informal communities through the eyes of its youth. She is a former project associate of Urban Omnibus and a current collaborator at UnionDocs.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed comments about past video content produced by the MTA to JP Chan.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.