For those who were in the city and old enough in 1993, that subway system of yesteryear was a sight to behold. Redbirds roamed the 2, 5 and 7 while stations were amidst only the early days of a rehab program. The system had shed its graffiti, but it wasn’t considered completely safe. Ridership had hit an all-time low, and the Metrocard was but a pilot program gaining headlines but few converts.
Today, whether we like to admit it or not, we have a relatively popular and robust system. Much of the rolling stock is less than 15 years old while the rails have been rehabilitated to restore reliability. The station environments have improved in fits and starts, and safety is barely a concern. Ridership in May reached an all-time high for the month, and no one thinks twice about riding at night. The Metrocard is now obsolete and hopefully on the way out. The 7 line extension will open in 11 months, and the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway is less than 40 months away. Where will the next twenty years take us?
As the MTA gears up for its next capital program and the changing demographics of a growing New York City, that’s the question agency officials are beginning to ask. In a presentation to the MTA Board yesterday, agency officials delivered a framework for a needs assessment that will focus on the next 20 years. The document is available here as a pdf, and it tells the story of a city more dependent on its transit network and a young demographic that has, so far, chosen to eschew car ownership in New York. It anticipates a transit network that will need to be more robust and more flexible as off-peak ridership continues to grow.
For the MTA, the next twenty years may have to mirror the last. Ridership likely won’t grow by another 58 percent as it has since 1992, but the system as it is set up now would be hard-pressed to handle even a 30 percent increase over today’s ridership levels. Eying the future, the MTA sees trips to Manhattan’s Central Business District flat-lining, and areas with historically low ridership are seeing growth. These trends tend to be overstated though as CBD trips still account for a huge percentage of subway rides, and even a small shift of rides to hours outside of peak times is unlikely to make an impact.
Still, the MTA is right to recognize that it must improve Outer Borough transit, and it must assume that car ownership and trips will continue to decrease as gas prices, tolls, parking and congestion remain significant intractable barriers for drivers. With a projected 17 million people in the MTA region by 2035, the agency has to add service, but their plans are modest. They want to attain and maintain a state of good repair while building out the full Second Ave. Subway. This is notable because it’s one of the few times in recent years the MTA has acknowledged the need and desire to keep SAS going. Officials have generally refused to comment on future phases before the current one was fully funded. Generally, though, the Twenty Year Plan’s solution for subway capacity issues focuses around new entrances to better distribute passenger loads while adding 25 Select Bus Service routes. It’s a lot, but is it enough?
This document serves as a guideline for more study. It will form the underlying assumptions that will drive the MTA’s next capital plan, and that plan will likely feature more big-ticket items. I’m hopeful that we’ll see initial funding requests for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and the initial asks for Penn Station Access as well. Without champions though, we’re unlikely to see the MTA advocating on its own for a Nostrand or Utica Ave. subway, let alone the TriboroRX plan.
The next twenty years will, needless to say, remain a mystery, but two decades ago, who would have believed any part of the Second Ave. Subway would be on its way to reality, that the L train would be a popular line, that people would be buying in Bushwick in droves? The next twenty years are likely to be just as surprising, and the MTA is going to have to plan ahead while moving faster on transit network expansion plans. Buses by themselves won’t cut it, but subways are prohibitively expensive. These are the challenges for the next five years, the next ten years and the next twenty years.