When the MTA readied its service cuts in late June of 2010, the media coverage focused on those who were going to eschew the subway for surface transit. An amNew York article found a few commuters who said they were going to bike while other stories featured interviews with people claiming they would begin to drive instead. Shockingly, that has not come to pass.
In its Transit Committee books for this week’s upcoming meeting (pdf), the MTA has released its year-end data for 2010, and the numbers show growth across the board that persisted past the date of the fare hikes. Subway ridership hit 1.6 billion in 2010, the second-highest total since 1950, and the MTA drew in over $3.3 billion in fare box revenue. Although the authority’s final ridership totals were 0.1 percent below expectations, the number represents a 0.2 percent increase over 2009.
Breaking it down, we see subways that are getting more crowded as buses grow emptier. Weekday subway ridership hit 5.2 million per day, the second highest total since 1950 and a 1.4 percent increase over 2009, while weekend ridership, despite myriad service changes and generally poor service, reached a two-day total average of 5.36 million. Saturday ridership climbed above 3 million while Sunday hit 2.3 million. That is, says the MTA, the highest weekend total in over 40 years.
Buses, meanwhile, have not been as lucky. Ridership in 2010 decreased by 2.8 percent to 696.9 million. Perhaps New Yorkers are growing fed up with bus service. When it’s routinely faster to walk over significant distances, only those physically unable to do so will hit the pavement. Pre-board fare payment systems can’t come soon enough.
The MTA attributes the increased ridership to the economy, and in doing so, they present the below graph. It clearly shows how ridership — the dashed line — tracks with changes in the city’s job figures. If ridership is going up, so too must be the city’s key employment numbers.
In the fare department, the MTA saw the average cost it charges per ride go up. In 2009, the MTA drew in $1.485 per swipe while in 2010, that climbed to $1.562. That increase is directly attributable to the full-year effect of the June 28, 2009 fare increases. Interestingly, now over 33 percent of riders use the 30-day unlimited ride card. That is, I believe, a high-water mark, and I’ll be curious to see what the new triple-digit price tag does to that figure over the next few months.
Meanwhile, despite the added revenue, the fare still remains well below 1996 levels. That year, prior to the introduction of discounted MetroCards, the MTA drew in $1.38 per swipe. In numbers adjusted for inflation, they’re earning just $1.03 per swipe in 1996 dollars. As much as we bemoan the fare hikes, the subway is still a very good deal.
So what then can we see from all of us? First, it appears as though the service cuts had a negligible impact on ridership. While the pre-cut numbers in May showed ridership on the rise, so too did the months after the service cuts. In fact, the 12-month rolling averages have been increasing since July. Apparently, cutting service doesn’t impact transit usage as much as many feared. That is, however, a dangerous lesson to learn. While it highlights the inelasticity of transit demand, at some point, there will be a breaking point, and cuts will begin to impact transit usage.
Second, the city’s buses suffered a far worse fate than the subways in the cuts. While bus ridership has been declining nearly steadily since December 2008, the cuts have not stopped the bleeding. While bus ridership figures have nearly leveled out, the cuts — along with the inherent problems with bus service I mentioned above — ensured that those numbers would not increase at all this year.
Politically and economically, 2010 was a terrible year for the MTA, but New Yorkers need their transit. People are waiting longer for trains, but they’re still coming out in droves. When will our city and state politicians realize that?