It’s become an annual ritual for the MTA. Every year as October rolls around, subway ridership spikes, and a few weeks later, the agency announces a new one-day record high. This time around, the lucky date was Thursday, October 29 when Transit recorded 6,217,621 subway entries. It’s a modern record and likely the highest single-day total since the mid-1940s. It’s also an increase of around 50,000 riders over the previous high, set in 2014, and over 300,000 more than the 2013 record. I can’t help but wonder where these riders fit and how we’ll deal with even more over the next few years.
The raw numbers are staggering. When the MTA first started keeping daily ridership totals in the mid-1980s, the first high-water mark checked in at 3,761,759 on a day in December of 1985. As recently as 2003, the highest daily recorded ridership total was still under 5 million, but in the last decade, the subway system has seen unparalleled growth considering the MTA has added just one new station in recent years.
That Thursday in October wasn’t an isolated incident either. The MTA announced that 15 weekdays in October saw ridership top 6 million, and the final day of the month — Halloween with a World Series game — saw 3,730,881 customers. The MTA offered this summary of the crowds:
October 2015’s average weekday subway ridership of 5.974 million was the highest of any month in over 45 years, and was 1.4% higher than October 2014. Approximately 80,000 more customers rode the subway on an average October 2015 weekday than just a year earlier – enough to fill more than 50 fully-loaded subway trains…
Between 2010 and 2014, the subway system has added 440,638 daily customers, roughly the equivalent of the entire population of mid-sized cities like Miami, Fla. or Raleigh, N.C. More customers have led to additional crowding on some lines, creating conditions in which trains are more likely to be delayed, and delayed trains in turn affect more customers than in the past.
Those 50 fully-loaded subway trains the MTA notes, by the way, would each have around 150-200 passengers per car depending upon the rolling stock. The agency isn’t kidding when they claim these trains are fully loaded. You can’t fit too many more people than that on one subway car.
The agency seems to recognize the challenges this high ridership totals bring, which was reflected in a statement by MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast. “The relentless growth in subway ridership shows how this century-old network is critical to New York’s future,” he said. “Our challenge is to maintain and improve the subways even as growing ridership puts more demands on the system. We are doing it thanks to the MTA Capital Program, which will allow us to bring meaningful improvements to our customers, such as real time arrival information on the lettered subway lines, cleaner and brighter stations with new technology like Help Points, modern signal systems, and almost 1,000 new subway cars.”
Notice though that none of Prendergast’s “meaningful improvements” involve expanding system capacity or increasing frequency to help with overcrowding. Rather, Prendergast has urged New Yorkers to adjust their working hours — a luxury many people don’t have. Off-peak service too has been more crowded and isn’t nearly as reliable as necessary to achieve significant travel time-shifts, but more on that later.
In its press release, the MTA touts the Second Ave. Subway, CBTC efforts and positioning personnel on platforms to wave people into and out of trains with flashlights, the effectiveness of which I’ve questioned. Service will increase in June, but as Charles Komanoff recently detailed, those service increases won’t keep pace with growing ridership. There is, unfortunately, no good answer, and that leaves those of us who have to take the subway every day, twice a day during peak hours, with no relief in sight.
No matter where you’re riding to or from, subway rides, especially during the morning rush, have become miserably crowded, with passengers forced to let multiple trains pass until even enough room to cram another body into a packed car emerges. Forget about getting a seat unless you board near a terminal. In other words, the subways are crowded, and it shows.
The problem is relief. The MTA did not anticipated annual ridership growing by 70 percent since 1995, and while the agency is happy to have added the equivalent of a small city to its daily ridership since 2010, the daily riders aren’t quite as thrilled. As now, the only core capacity increases are Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, due to open next year, and Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, due to open in a decade if we’re lucky. Beyond that, we have no Crossrail (let alone a Crossrail 2) or Grand Paris Express on the horizon. We have a 20-year needs assessment from late 2013 and constant fights over dedicated bus lanes and short-term band aids for long-term problems.
I don’t have the magic bullet or the one great answer. We know now that the MTA should have been aggressive in its ridership projections two decades ago, but who knew grow would be so extreme in the intervening 20 years? It’s time now though to plan for 2035, and as we sit here today, the subways are close to maxing out. It costs too much and takes too long to build anything that can be a short-term fix, and as New York continues to grow, we are facing a transit capacity crisis without an easy answer.