Home New York City Transit Before the service cuts, ridership on the rise

Before the service cuts, ridership on the rise

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the weekend, the MTA published its Board committee materials for this morning’s meetings. As part of the Transit Committee deck — available here as a PDF — the authority unveiled the May 2010 ridership figures, and after months of an economy-related decline in ridership, subway usage had finally started to creep up again. The service cuts, in other words, came at a very bad time.

Based on figures released by the MTA, ridership in May averaged 5.327 million per weekday and a combined 5.524 million per weekend. Those figures represent significant increases over the May 2009 ridership totals, and although the 12-month rolling averages are showing negative changes, as the city’s economy has recovered, so too has transit ridership. In fact, ridership for the year has been approximately 1.2 percent above expected for the MTA.

Despite this popularity, straphangers weren’t getting better service. In fact, by May, the MTA’s absolute on-time performance numbers were abysmal. Take a look at another chart from the same PDF:

As this chart clearly shows, the MTA’s absolute on-time performance hit a three-year low in May 2010. Only 59.8 percent of all weekday trains were on time, and these numbers were nearly identical across both A and B Division lines. The MTA says that scheduling changes, right of way delays and overcrowding represented 89.2 percent of the total delays. In this instance, a train is considered on time if it arrives at its terminal within five minutes of the scheduled time.

On a line-by-line basis, the results may warrant addition investigation. The 1 train, for instance, saw 81.3 percent of its trains arrive on time, while a reported 0.2 percent of all 6 trains were on time and 0 percent of all Q trains were on time. That seems a bit fishy to me. Controllable on-time performance — a measure that excludes sick customers, police activity and power outages — came in at 87.3 percent, slightly below the 12-month average but in line with the May 2009 figures. Weekend performance actually improved in May.

By and large, the ridership numbers should represent a high-water mark for the MTA. As the economy improves, the authority will have to deal with declining ridership brought about by fewer bus routes and the overall slate of service cuts. Furthermore, with the economy rebounding and subway service needed more so than before, the state has picked a bad time to let the MTA wither in its fiscal crisis.

With the service cuts on the one hand, looming news of a fare hike on the other should stifle this ridership growth as well. Commuters will simply grow to be fed up with the way the MTA is forcing them to pay higher fares for less service. It’s not part of the MTA’s agenda, per se, to cut service, but the state isn’t adhering to its responsibilities toward mass transit.

As the MTA’s economic woes deepen, we’ll see the impact of poor transit funding in New York City. We’ll see how the city’s economy is so closely intertwined with a vibrant public transit network that can efficiently deliver commuters, students and anyone else from Point A to Point B for a relatively cheap fare. We’ll see how less frequent off-peak service will drive down the MTA’s ridership and revenue totals, and we’ll see what happens when transit becomes an afterthought. It won’t be a pretty conclusion.

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25 comments

Andrew July 26, 2010 - 6:54 am

On-time performance is a pretty meaningless performance measure for a frequent transit service like the subway. If a line is scheduled to run every 4 minutes, but every train operates exactly 8 minutes late, nobody will notice – the riders will be getting perfect service! – but every train will be marked late, and on-time performance will be 0.

What would be more useful is some sort of measure of service regularity – if the scheduled headway is 4 minutes, are trains coming 4 minutes apart, or are there bunches and gaps? That’s what matters to riders. And since most riders on most lines don’t go all the way to the terminal, this should be measured at every station on the line,
or at least selected points on the line, not just at the terminal.

The OTP numbers for the Q and 6 make perfect sense: if a train skips any stops, it’s considered late, and the Q and 6 are skipping stops on every trip due to construction! Yet another reason this is a meaningless performance measure.

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AlexB July 26, 2010 - 1:17 pm

I agree. The true measure of performance would be regularity (max and min times between trains), not adherence to a schedule very few people pay any attention to.

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Brian July 26, 2010 - 2:41 pm

The problem with the subway is that you can sometimes have a ABDed interval. People will notice if their train is late. For an example, if a train line has trains arriving every six minutes and one train comes in eight minutes. People will notice their train is late by about two minutes.

A similar issue is with some bus routes. The M14 is a perfect example. During peak periods, buses are supposed to come every five to seven minutes. If one bus doesn’t show up within eight minutes, those who are waiting at Union Square going south will notice.

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Andrew July 29, 2010 - 11:06 pm

That’s exactly what I’m saying: people care about the headway. When service is frequent, they don’t care about absolute scheduled times.

If trains are supposed to come every 6 minutes, then a gap of 8 minutes might not mean that anything was late. It could just as easily mean that a train was 2 minutes early! (And even if a train was actually late, lateness is only counted if it’s more than 5 minutes and it’s at the terminal.)

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Al D July 26, 2010 - 9:23 am

Just want to take this opportunity to say thanks again Albany. Dear Albany, if you do not gerrymander my district, I may just vote for the challenger every chance I get.

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BrooklynBus July 26, 2010 - 11:03 am

As bad as subway service on-time performance is, bus service is much worse. I realize that traffic makes it more difficult to control bus service and that some delays on routes with frequent service is unavoidable. But a route that is scheduled to operate every 30 minutes, should run every 30 minutes.

This week’s Courier Life featured a letter from an elderly woman who was forced to wait an hour and 10 minutes for the newly restructured B70 in the 90 degree heat. That could be dismissed as a one time occurrence due to some unusual problem like the street being blocked by a firetruck. But the more disturbing part of the letter was that she also waited an hour for the bus, the day before.

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BrooklynBus July 26, 2010 - 11:12 am

As bad as subway service on-time performance is, bus service is much worse. I realize that traffic makes it more difficult to control bus service and that some delays on routes with frequent service is unavoidable. But a route that is scheduled to operate every 30 minutes, should run every 30 minutes.

This week’s Courier Life featured a letter from an elderly woman who was forced to wait an hour and 10 minutes for the newly restructured B70 in the 90 degree heat. That could be dismissed as a one time occurrence due to some unusual problem like the street being blocked by a firetruck. But the more disturbing part of the letter was that she also waited an hour for the bus, the day before.

I’m also starting to wonder if perhaps a driver called in sick and the MTA chose to not fill the run. That would be criminal.

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Al D July 26, 2010 - 12:27 pm

There is a dire need for dedicated bus lanes and GPS technology. More importantly though, there needs to be a more compelling and attentive human element to bus transit.

For example, and perhaps Brooklyn Bus, you are in the best position to offer up a response. The B62 was newly created and re-routed to meet at the Williamsburg Bridge Bus Station as we all know. Since the bus station is commodious, one would think that the bus stops would be at or in the station, even if it means losing a few spaces of storage capacity (This is a service after all). While this is true of the northbound route which stops at the curb of the bus station, the southbound stop is down the block and across a very large instersection at the base of the Williamburg Bridge! So we all know that people will be risking life and limb to make their connecting bus across the street. So why couldn’t/wouldn’t the MTA make the stop AT the bus station? I mean, it IS a bus station after all. And especially now that the B39 no longer operates, there has been a free, pre-exisiting bay there for a month now. As I said, until there is a more human element to all this, we’ll just continue down the same, slow road…

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BrooklynBus July 26, 2010 - 10:23 pm

I’m not that familiar with the layout of the station, but from the information you offered, my guess is that no one thought of it. The people at OP just don’t care about that level of detail and are so busy dealing with these cuts and planning the next round, they probably don’t even have the time. However, the field personnel may have noticed the problem and I wouldn’t even be surprised if someone has mentioned it to his supervisor. But since serving the customer is a low priority, it will take forever for the idea to move up the chain of command and reach someone at OP, and once they get it, they wil be in no hurry to investigate and forward recommendations to DOT.

When you see something of this nature, the best way to get action is to bring it to the attention of a local elected official, preferably someone who cares about mass transit. If they make a stink, someone at the MTA may start paying attention. Ideas in a bureaucracy always move faster if they come from the top and work their way down than if they originate at the bottom and work their way up.

Another alternative would be to write to Joseph Smith directly. (Joseph.Smith@nyct.com)

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AlexB July 26, 2010 - 1:21 pm

It’s interesting that weekend service has suffered less than weekday service and come back faster.

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Edward July 26, 2010 - 1:47 pm

Not really. There’s less service to be cut on weekends, since most lines run with longer headways (if they run at all on the weekend) and much less crowds on most lines compared to weekday rush hours. Traffic is also very light in the city during July-August. Will be interesting to see how this plays out when school starts in September.

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Nabe News: July 26 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle July 26, 2010 - 1:28 pm

[…] to Second Avenue Sagas, “the MTA’s absolute on-time performance hit a three-year low in May 2010.” So, poor […]

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John July 26, 2010 - 9:41 pm

The thing is that, when they made the changes, some of the lines that they cut had significant recent growth over the past 5 years. My favorite example is the B71, which showed over 30% overall growth in the past 5 years. Other examples of routes that were eliminated or majorly restrtuctured, but had significant growth include the Bx14, B70, M9, B64, Bx8, Bx5, and S42 (weekends only). If they had taken that into account, they could’ve kept ridership losses to a minimum, as many of the other routes that were eliminated had significant ridership decline. As many people had said, that was the disadvantage of making 10 years worth of changes in one day-they didn’t study each change.

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Brian July 26, 2010 - 10:38 pm

Agreed 100%. As for the M9’s ridership growth, I can vouch for that. I recall riding the M9 countless times from 1996-2001, there is more riders now then there was back in 1996. The stretch along the Lower East Side and East Village is the main reason for the increase. Same deal with the M14. As for the M21, the reason why ridership was low is because of the headways.

As many people had said, that was the disadvantage of making 10 years worth of changes in one day-they didn’t study each change.

That’s the TA for you. If you are going to make adjustments to routes, have the data ready to justify cutting or modifying service patterns. The MTA’s notion is to cut service to the areas that needs it the most.

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BrooklynBus July 26, 2010 - 11:34 pm

They wanted you to think they took a scientific approach to the cuts so they presented a lot of criteria. As I’ve stated before, just presenting the criteria is insufficient. The process has to be made transparent and it wasn’t. No attempt was made to show how the criteria worked together. They presented the ridership trend history, but just promptly ignored it.

Their planning process amounted to looking at a map, trying to find duplications, then picking through your data to find numbers to support your conclusions. That is not how to plan.

If they had done their job properly, each route would have received some sort weighted number based upon the relative importance of each of the criteria and a list would have resulted of which routes should be eliminated first and how much each cut would save taking lost revenue into account for each route cut. The cut-off would be the dollar amount you want to save through the cuts. If additional monies should become available, you could go to the list to determine which routes should be the first to be restored. And even worse, MTA Bus and NYCT didn’t even use the same criteria.

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Brian July 27, 2010 - 9:02 am

I see where you are coming from. The MTA was obviously lazy to compile their data to better determine what routes should be eliminated or reduced. In my area, the mistake they made was making the M21 a Houston St. Crosstown, re-routing the M9 to Ave C, and keeping the M8 on weekdays. After a month since the cuts went into effect, people in my area are complaining. In the end, I can see the TA restoring the M9 on Ave B. and the M21 via Ave. C.

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BrooklynBus July 27, 2010 - 8:57 pm

It will take a lot of political power to get them to restore anything. If they restore one route, everyone will start asking for them to do the same in their neighborhood.

As I previously stated (at the hearing and elsewhere), most people wouldn’t realize the full effect of the bus cuts until after they take effect. This has been proven by the numerous newspaper articles and blogs that have appeared since the cuts. In March, all everyone was focused on were the subway cuts and the student half fare issue. Now more people are talking about the bus cuts than the subway cuts, because the bus cuts were so much more devastating.

Brian July 27, 2010 - 11:43 pm

Couldn’t have stated it any better. Excellent response!

I would wait till the school year begins to make a better assessment of the the service cuts. I can honestly see some huge brewing up the next couple of months as far as service is concerned.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines July 27, 2010 - 9:24 am

[…] Ben Kabak Grabs Subway Ridership and Reliability Graphs Showing Pre-Service Cut Trends […]

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Clarence July 28, 2010 - 12:57 am

All I can say is: I keep riding my bike as much as I can these days.

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Emily July 28, 2010 - 11:30 am

Just a guess, but I’m figuring the Q train’s dismal performance owes to the service change in the B train. B trains began running local in Brooklyn this past year, sharing the Q’s tracks. The Q train’s schedule changed noticeably, but possibly not officially.

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Brian July 28, 2010 - 1:35 pm

When the Brighton Line Reconstruction began last year, Q service remained somewhat constant. As a result of having the B run local, the TA had to add an additional 2-3 more trainsets just to maintain headways on that line. Once the project is finished, you should expect a better performance on both lines.

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Andrew July 29, 2010 - 11:10 pm

I explained the Q train’s dismal performance in an earlier comment. A train that skips a stop is counted as late. Every Q train skips some of its stops in Brooklyn. Therefore, every Q train is counted as late – even if it’s early.

It has nothing to do with how well the service is actually running. Nobody expects the northbound Q to stop at Neck Raod anymore, but it’s penalized for skipping the stop anyway.

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With the fare hike, anticipating a small ridership drop August 3, 2010 - 12:17 pm

[…] the months prior to the June service cuts, the MTA saw its ridership increase for the first time since the recession hit. Now, however, forces are gathering against the […]

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