The Disappearing Art Of Maintenance

The noble but undervalued craft of maintenance could help preserve modernity’s finest achievements, from public transit systems to power grids, and serve as a useful framework for addressing climate change and other pressing planetary constraints.

Scott Balmer for Noema Magazine

Alex Vuocolo is a journalist based in New York.

The R32 trains, nicknamed the Brightliners for their shiny unpainted exteriors, were built to last 35 years. (Imagine that: Your lifespan stamped into metal, your death prefigured.) When they were finally retired from service in January, they had been riding the rails of New York City for no less than 58 years and were, by most accounts, the oldest operating subway cars in the world. That’s 23 unplanned years of hauling people across New York. A whole generation got to see those stainless-steel beauties creaking down the tunnel to the platform, with their crinkle-ridged exteriors and back-lit advertisements. 

In a way, it was a small miracle that they lasted so long, an “anomaly,” as one mechanic told me. Except it wasn’t really. It took a lot of work from a lot of people, day after day, year after year. 

I recently went to talk to some of those responsible for that work at the MTA maintenance facility in Corona, Queens. There are 13 of these huge workshops across the city, scattered from Coney Island to the banks of Westchester Creek in the Bronx. This one is in a remote pocket of the city, an area given over mostly to massive buildings and spaces: Citi Field, Flushing Meadows Park, the sprawling train yard. It’s like a hospital but an industrial one, scaled up to care for its multi-ton patients.

Standing around the break room with their arms crossed and ID badges dangling, heads full of train-talk, several maintenance workers took turns explaining the process: Railcars roll off the main tracks into a long rectangular building. The cars are lifted to eye level, inspected and repaired if needed. Most of them get to leave that day — back to work, like the rest of us. But some are moved over to a special track for trickier jobs. 

We went for a walk along the service tracks in a big group, everyone chiming in, pointing to the parts that needed repairs or replacing: the truck, the brakes, the AC units. They told me the fleet is split into two camps, one called “legacy,” the other “millennial.” The former were built before 2000, the latter after. The millennial fleet is tougher to repair in some ways because there are more electronics in the cars. Maybe you’ve heard your grandfather complain about this, how engines are too damn complicated these days. Siu Ling Ko, a chief mechanical officer for the train cars, told me the shells may last 40 years. The electronics, though, not so much. 

The legacy fleet has its own problems, of course, and is more prone to failures overall. Replacement parts are harder to find; the firms that made them — the Budd Company, Pullman-Standard and Westinghouse — are long gone. Many components are well past their design life, and mechanics have to pluck similar parts from retired vehicles or engineer substitutes. It’s a very ad-hoc, improvisational process that relies on the know-how that long-time employees build up over years. 

But there’s a method to the madness, and a hard-earned one. Back in the 1980s, when the crumbling, graffiti-covered subway was the stuff of reactionary urban nightmares, MTA president David L. Gunn kicked off an ambitious overhaul of the system, including capital improvements, the famous graffiti removal program and more routine repairs. In 1990, this approach solidified as the scheduled maintenance system. Now, every two to three months, more than 7,000 railcars are taken in for inspection with the goal of catching problems before they happen. 

“Maintenance has to be valued outside of austerity, and right now it’s unclear if our current economic system is capable of that.”

That’s the difference between maintenance and repair. Repair is when you fix something that’s already broken. Maintenance is about making something last.

By that definition, the MTA is tasked with one of the most difficult maintenance jobs in the country, and its struggles are also a case study in why maintenance is such a tough sell politically. It’s not strictly necessary — or at least it doesn’t seem to be until things start falling apart. It’s chronically undervalued. The MTA is often harassed for its relatively high labor and maintenance costs. 

Most mechanics would probably prefer to have brand new, ultramodern train cars and a rail system built on the best technology available. But they are a practical bunch. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Ling Ko told me. “We have to be realistic and deal with what we have.” Dealing with what they have has become a professional ethic for the MTA. 

But how is it that the agency became the steward of the lumbering machines that move millions of people across one of the busiest cities in the world? Behind the decades of underinvestment and political sabotage is a more basic story about maintenance, what motivates it, where it is possible and advisable and where it isn’t. More often than not, maintenance is done only under conditions of austerity; those that can afford brand new things can simply discard what breaks or is no longer useful. 

“If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” said Richard Ardizzone, the general superintendent at the Corona shop, referring to the MTA’s knack for overcoming adversity, budgetary or mechanical or otherwise. But the veteran mechanic’s gentle boast begs the question: Should it be this hard to maintain trains? Here, or anywhere else?  

The MTA’s predicament has global implications. The industrial world is aging, and the sheer quantity and geographic extent of transportation, water and energy infrastructure presents an unprecedented challenge at the exact moment that climate change forces us to rethink material use. More robust maintenance practices could help preserve modernity’s finest achievements, from public transit systems to power grids to insulated homes. But first maintenance has to be valued outside of austerity, and right now it’s unclear if our current economic system is capable of that. 

Maintenance could serve as a useful framework for addressing climate change and other pressing planetary constraints that, if left unaddressed, could recreate on a global scale the localized austerity of a cash-strapped transit agency. Indeed, maintenance as a concept could encompass both the built environment and the so-called natural world. Perhaps maintenance, rather than sustainability, is the more useful framework for a green transition, because it can account for how human infrastructure is now deeply entangled with the environment in the age of the Anthropocene. 

If you start talking with engineers about maintenance, somebody always brings up Incan rope bridges. Maybe you’ve seen an illustration or a digital rendering in a Hollywood movie. They’re the color of hay and hang with a bit of slack over rivers and canyons in Peru’s rugged terrain. Made from ichu grass threaded into progressively denser and denser bundles, they were ritualistically maintained by ancient Peruvians. They lasted for centuries. Most are long gone now, though at least one has been preserved for posterity as an infrastructural artifact, just like the R32 at the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn. 

It’s hard to imagine a modern ritual that would be equal to the task of perpetually renewing steel bridges, concrete highways and cement buildings. It would require an entirely new industrial paradigm. One label for such a system is “circular economy,” which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which funds research on the topic, defines as “an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.”

The concept dates to the 1960s and the work of economist Kenneth E. Boulding, but most of us are more familiar with a related slogan that emerged from the environmental movement of the 1970s: reduce, reuse, recycle. Those have been the guiding principles for the green movement for much of the past half-century, informing everything from municipal recycling programs to efficiency standards for toilets to lifestyle movements calling for “zero-impact living.” 

Maintain is notably missing from the triplet, perhaps because it’s difficult to reconcile with sustainability’s implicit emphasis on reduction and restraint. By contrast, maintenance is about keeping things — sometimes large, intensively built things like skyscrapers and subway cars that might be difficult to imagine in the biodegradable utopias of the most gung-ho environmentalists. Ultimately, reduction is prioritized. We must not hold onto things. We must let go like good Buddhists, as industrial civilization becomes merely a painful, transient phase in human history, passing out of us like bad karma. 

There is tension in the question of whether to build objects more intensively, so that they last longer, or to recognize that some things cannot endure and thus should be designed that way. There’s no hope for a paper plate in the long run, for example. It’s designed to enter the waste stream as cheaply and easily as possible. Conversely, a toaster could last for decades if maintained properly, assuming the manufacturer hasn’t built obsolescence into it (as is often the case). 

“‘Maintain’ is notably missing from ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ perhaps because it’s difficult to reconcile with sustainability’s implicit emphasis on reduction and restraint.”

More complex objects and built environments, like a transit system or a housing development, compound questions over what should last and what cannot. How do we create systems that can address these questions on their own terms? 

Stewart Brand, the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, helped popularize the concept of “shearing layers,” which describes buildings as stacks of discrete systems, each requiring different degrees of care and maintenance. While a wood frame might be fine for three decades, the plumbing or cabling might last only half that time.

Sustainability, and the climate discourse in general, fails to disentangle the built environment in this way. The built and unbuilt environment are treated as totalities caught in a zero-sum conflict. One barrages the other with smokestacks and landfills, the other retaliates with forest fires and flooding. Climate change becomes a hyperobject, bearing down on all of humanity at once, condemning and forbidding it. 

Companies and governments answer this challenge with obscure benchmarks and proliferating, multi-decade goals. Climate change discourse floats outside the reality of industrial life, with its interlocking material and mechanical dependencies, never touching down until real scarcities assert themselves. In this way, emissions goals are not unlike GDP targets. Both are administered abstractions, somehow all-powerful and impotent at the same time. They reduce action to aggregates and strip human actors of agency. 

Maintenance is necessarily more focused on the particular. There is no single all-encompassing maintenance regime. It is always specific to material systems and the labor practices that they require. Best practices emerge at the intersection of production and consumption, service and use, formation and dissolution. 

Under capitalism, maintenance is an ambiguous position, almost a kind of limbo. The economics are rarely cooperative. There are plenty of carrots from a technical point of view — make things safer, more reliable, longer-lasting — but often no stick. In the developing world (or budget-strapped transit agencies), sticks are everywhere. Cuba’s beautifully maintained mid-century automobiles owe their longevity to a cruel and arbitrary embargo. India’s long-standing repair culture is the byproduct of the country’s position at the bottom of the global supply chain, and even now is being undermined by rising incomes and consumption. 

“The pragmatism of maintenance work is sorely needed in the climate debate, which is so often preoccupied with end-states that it has no earthly or humanly way of achieving.”

In the abundant West, those limits are less acute, and there is a prevailing faith among capitalists that the market will come through in the end — at least for the highest bidder. Recent price increases for construction materials like plywood should, according to Econ 101, force builders to treat them more dearly. But price swings have to be sustained to really change behavior, and competitive markets make coordinated action difficult under the best conditions, let alone during a mad scramble for supplies.

Right now, the electric vehicle boom is fueling an extraordinary surge in demand for metals such as nickel, cobalt and lithium. Warnings abound that the current supply of those ingredients won’t keep up, and new mines can’t be established quickly, especially when many in the West don’t want one in their backyard. EV makers like Tesla are scrambling to set up direct supply lines, and sometimes getting into the mining business themselves. 

In other words, the specter of material limits is hardly forcing a kumbaya moment. It’s making competition even more fierce and zero-sum, with the riches going to the most aggressive and acquisitive. Perhaps this pressure will create better recycling practices, as the cost incentive for reprocessing old battery materials increases. But there isn’t a society-wide plan for this to happen. If anything, there’s a handful of opportunistic businesspeople and investors waiting in the wings. 

Even when the market isn’t beset by shortages and price spikes, labor dynamics are fundamentally opposed to maintenance. In much of the developed world, labor costs are higher than material costs, which creates incentives to burn through fresh material rather than invest in the labor to use it more efficiently or maintain it for longer-term use. According to one study, for example, it’s more expensive to cut steel into customized pieces, thus cutting down on waste, than to pump out uniformly sized sheets. 

The incentives get even more distorted when stretched across industries and use cases. Here, again, maintenance distinguishes itself rhetorically from sustainability. Sustainability is a state; maintenance is a process. It requires work, and work of a certain type. Whatever its ultimate goal — safety, material efficiency, reducing carbon emissions — practical know-how and repetitive labor come first. This kind of pragmatism is sorely needed in the climate debate, which is so often preoccupied with end-states that it has no earthly or humanly way of achieving. 

So far, however, those who champion maintenance are following in the footsteps of environmental advocates in prioritizing regulatory reform over a more ambitious overhaul of the economy and work itself. As Lee Vinsel, the co-founder of the Maintainers, one of the few advocacy groups to focus on this issue, told me, the lack of progress in getting Americans to value maintenance is a “political will issue.” 

Nathan Proctor, a director of the Campaign for the Right to Repair at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said it’s a matter of capitalism not staying in its lane. “I think capitalism is an efficient way to organize commerce,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be organizing social value, and it does.” That places the issue firmly in the domain of rules and regulations. As Vinsel wrote in his book, “Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts and Regulations in the United States,” industries can evolve symbiotically with regulators. “I really think we can use regulatory structures to get a lot of this done by having requirements that technologies have to live up to,” he said. “It actually opens up the creativity of capitalism, right?”

This tracks with how many liberal reformers and environmentalists view climate change. With the right combination of regulations, efficient markets and moral suasion, there is no structural problem too big for good old-fashioned law. For what it’s worth, Europe has made more progress along these lines than the U.S. The European Commission’s Sustainable Product Initiative, for instance, is pushing manufacturers in the fast-fashion industry to produce longer-lasting clothes that are designed for easier reuse, repair and recycling. While this sounds like a perfect example of maintenance policy, the EU first has to get companies, many of them multinationals with factories located far from their customer base, to comply. And then will come consumer grumpiness over higher prices.

Here in the U.S., the most popular political expression of maintenance is the right-to-repair movement, which is more focused on consumer rights than a top-to-bottom overhaul of production and consumption. Their basic demand is for corporations to make products easier to repair, and they’ve actually made some headway. After years of getting backlash for its sealed-tight product design, Apple started giving customers access to tools and parts in late 2021, and Samsung followed this year. In both cases, the emphasis was on giving tech-savvy customers the choice to repair their products, if they are willing to put in the work. It reflects a very do-it-yourself ethos, behind which is a whole cottage industry of TikTok and YouTube videos teaching viewers how to fix everything from MacBooks to KitchenAid blenders. 

Louis Rossmann, the owner of a computer repair shop in New York City and a popular Youtuber, exemplifies this online right-to-repair culture. For him, repair is a pathway to independence and autonomy. “I care about freedom,” he told me, “and the ability to service your own property is a primary tenet of freedom.” Of course, capitalism doesn’t make it easy for people like Rossmann to make a living on maintenance. He explained that his business didn’t become possible until he started getting blueprints for iPhone circuit boards off the dark web. 

“If maintenance seems conservative, decked out in language about freedom from government oversight and corporate control, it doesn’t have to be.”

The personal dimension of maintenance and repair — how it’s also a form of knowledge that can give you power over the objects in your life — is not often emphasized by progressive environmentalists. That language is left to DIY Youtubers and entrepreneurs like Rossmann, not to mention the farmers and fishermen and musicians and truckers and others whose livelihoods depend on certain machines operating at a certain level. 

If maintenance seems conservative, decked out in language about freedom from government oversight and corporate control, it doesn’t have to be. The right-to-repair movement falls well short of reordering society. It might, however, mark the return of a material awareness. 

The way the world is constructed today is no longer legible, politically or technically. Objects come and go under mysterious circumstances. Cars and trains either run or someone else fixes them. The objects in our lives are shipped to us from faraway lands, and they work until they don’t. Discarded, they get hauled away in the early morning by stinky trucks. 

Maintenance mostly happens out of sight, mysteriously. If we notice it, it’s a nuisance. When road crews block off sections of highway to fix potholes, we treat it as an obstruction, not a vital and necessary process. 

The built environment becomes a series of mere commodities and services, which are more or less expensive, more or less onerous. Environmentalists, liberal reformers and internet repair gurus share the goal of trying to demystify the world of stuff, but they lack a theory of change equal to the task at hand.

One of the unspoken assumptions of the mainstream environmental movement is that climate change will, at some indeterminate point in the future, swoop in as the externality to end all externalities, and either destroy us or force us to adapt. There’s something both horrifying and comforting in this notion. On the one hand, action seems impossible in the short term. On the other hand, nature could soon force us to change, saving us from the uncomfortable task of addressing climate change in a way that balances other prerogatives beyond simply “saving the planet” in the abstract. 

The way this globalized coercion is supposed to happen is through the price mechanism. Governments will either pass a law raising the cost of carbon emissions through some kind of cap, and/or increasing scarcity will drive up the price of resources. Remember the peak oil debates of the early 2000s? Eventually, experts told us, gasoline would get so expensive that people would start moving to cities, riding a bike and taking the train.

The problem with this approach should already be self-evident. The impact of climate change will be unevenly distributed in space and time. Rather than a single biblical reckoning, there will be a series of disasters and dislocations, which global capitalism has so far proven highly adaptable at ignoring or overcoming. Simply waiting for climate change or resource scarcity to once and for all force us to change our ways is tantamount to taking our hands off the wheel, like a driver in one of Elon Musk’s autonomous rides. Choices have to be made, but maintenance, material efficiency, sustainability — or any number of frameworks gesturing toward a greener, less wasteful economy — are not sufficient goals unto themselves. 

Maintenance isn’t a program. It’s a practice. Melvin Kranzberg, the former president of the Society for the History of Technology, once wrote that “technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral,” which is to say that its value is always contingent, even as certain technologies have their own internal logic that must be accounted for. The same goes for maintenance or sustainability, or any mental framework. Climate change and resource scarcity are real phenomena, but they must be addressed in the full context of other social aims, such as a given standard of living — or in the case of maintenance, a state of repair.

Technical and political-economic concerns are perversely entangled. There is the problem of a crumbling bridge, and then there is the problem of coordinating public action to fix a crumbling bridge. There is a technical answer, a set of actions and materials that must be brought to bear, but the political answer is just as important. The follow-up questions pour in: What if it would be better to build a new bridge in a new place, based on changes in demographics? What if the bridge was constructed shoddily from the beginning and should be completely rebuilt? What if society is moving away from automobile travel and requires other bridges built in different ways? 

“As a type of work that straddles production and consumption, maintenance can help us reckon with both the limits and possibilities of industrial society.”

The only way to answer these questions is to have a coherent vision for industrial society that oversees the distribution of capacities and capabilities. Growth and degrowth are sorry proxies for this debate. Much of what we’ve built can and should be maintained, while much else should be torn down and built anew. Perhaps the MTA should get new trains, but if not, then it should at least get the maximum level of government and public support to ensure the trains it does have run safely, comfortably and on time. 

Maintenance is no panacea, not within the narrow parameters of a subway system or the planet-sized arena of ecology, but it does offer a rough methodology for thinking through these questions and priorities. As a type of work that straddles production and consumption, maintenance can help us reckon with both the limits and possibilities of industrial society. 

The difference between a state of good repair and a bad one is often highly technical. No amount of utopian dreaming can make a battery hold any more energy or a piece of steel bear any more weight than it’s designed for. Mechanics, plumbers, electricians, engineers and janitors are at the frontlines of figuring out what’s possible with the machines and tools at their disposal, and we can’t set civilizational goals without their input. We need their expertise, just like we need scientists and doctors, to even begin answering the question of what must be done. 

“We have a lot of folks here with a lot of time and a lot of knowledge,” said Raymond DelValle Jr., an assistant chief mechanical officer at the MTA. “One of the jobs of a maintenance division is to share the knowledge that we have.” I can’t help but wonder what they might tell us if we asked them what was possible without simultaneously denying them the resources they need to do their job. 

“Maintenance must be valued on its own terms, and that means tearing down the economic system that rejects it.”

Their knowledge is only worth so much, however. The real challenge is creating an economic system that values labor outside of profit-driven production. Many have rightfully called for a revaluing of care work in recent years. Maintenance workers deserve a similar revival in attention — but not only that. The price mechanism, and the labor system built around it, is fundamentally opposed to maintenance, both in its narrowest practical applications and in its broadest philosophical implications. The fact that the failures of capitalism happened to encourage maintenance practices at the margins is not worth emulating, and we shouldn’t be waiting around for climate change to recreate that austerity at a global scale. It must be valued on its own terms, and that means tearing down the economic system that rejects it. 

One of the aesthetic charms of the Brightliners was their unpainted steel, their raw factory-floor materiality. They wore their industrial lineage proudly, and we associate them with a time of boldness, with an ascendant industrial age that was still confident in its promise of technology and plenty. We now know the limits of that vision, but we have yet to replace it. 

Whatever comes next must take responsibility for that legacy, while also articulating something new and perhaps even bolder than what came before. There is a useful lesson drably concealed in the MTA’s maintenance facility in Queens: What we inherit comes with responsibility. Vintage machines are owed our best efforts, and our ingenuity in keeping them running should at least be equal to our ingenuity in forging them. 

The work of maintenance is ultimately a way of parsing and knowing a thing and deciding, over and over, what it’s worth. “Maintenance should be seen as a noble craft,” said Rossmann, the boot-strapping repair man who learned the secrets of the iPhone’s circuits. “It should be seen as something that teaches people not just how to repair, but how to think.”