A few weeks ago, on Father’s Day, I was waiting for an express train back to Brooklyn from Manhattan at around 9 p.m. that Sunday night. When the 2 train pulled into 14th Street, it was packed. I had enough room to stand comfortably, but no seat opened up until a few folks got out at Fulton Street. The train remained crowded — not just for a Sunday night — until I left at Grand Army Plaza.
For frequent riders, these crowded weekend trains aren’t a new phenomenon. In absolute numbers, weekend ridership remains far behind weekend totals. In fact, the combined ridership for Saturday and Sunday in April reached 5.4 million while the subway seems 5.2 million per weekday. Yet with fewer trains on the rails and popular tourist and nightlife destinations packing in people, trains can be nearly as crowded on the weekend as they are during the week, and this is, according to an article in today’s Times, a new and surprising development for Transit.
As Michael Grynbaum reports, large swaths of subway routes aren’t seeing the massive decreases in ridership that used to be a weekend hallmark. Weekend totals, he writes, “have doubled in the past 20 years, far outpacing the growth of ridership during the workweek.” “You would probably have to go back to close to World War II — when people were working six days a week — to find a similar trend,” William M. Wheeler, the MTA’s director of planning said to The Times.
Transit officials are attentively watching these ridership trends which they say are spurred on by “the shifting cultural and economic picture of New York.” No longer are residents afraid of riding the subways after dark as they were from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. With rampant gentrification pushing the city’s less safe neighborhoods to the margins of the map along with a concerted push by the city to clean up the subways and capital investments in rolling stock, the subways are far safer than they once were, and it shows.
An accompanying graphic highlights how some stations aren’t seeing major weekend decreases in riders, and Grynbaum has more:
Dozens of residential developments have sprouted up around subway stations in once-desolate parts of Brooklyn and Queens. And the rise of a service-oriented city economy means many workers report to jobs on the weekends or at off hours.
Just 10 years ago, the transportation authority was running advertisements that encouraged riders to take advantage of extra space on weekend trains. Today, in nightlife-heavy neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, the subways move nearly the same number of riders on weekends as they do during the week, a phenomenon once considered unthinkable.
At the Bedford Avenue stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which serves about a third of the L train’s passengers, an average weekend day retains 90 percent of the ridership of a weekday. At Prince Street in SoHo, recently recast as an upscale shopping mecca, the retention rate is 85 percent.
For the MTA, though, this increase in ridership leads to disgruntled weekend passengers when service changes — which this weekend, impacted 16 lines — lead to roundabout reroutings and shuttle buses. The number one gripe many have with the MTA these days focuses around weekend travel. “The MTA can no longer have the luxury to think that weekends are expendable; weekends are commuting days now,” John Liu, the city comptroller who never met a complaint he wouldn’t audit, said. “People who commute Monday to Friday say nice things about the subways. But the complaints about weekend service resound all throughout the city.”
So as Liu audits the MTA’s weekend service patterns — to what end, I have no idea — the MTA will continue to reroute trains for the weekend. Even with ridership down, it’s still overall a fraction of the weekday totals, and a plan floated by Jay Walder last year to shudder full lines in order to blitz them with work gained little traction. “[The weekend] is the only time available to get these projects completed,” MTA spokesman Charles Seaton said.
And so New Yorkers will complain. They want smooth weekday rides and full weekend service, but they can’t have both. Ridership, which should inch ever upward, will push the MTA to find a better weekend solution and provide more reliable replacement service while it can. Ultimately, though, William Henderson of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee put it best: “There are no answers that are going to be painless.”