After years and years of massive growth, something a little bit funny and a little bit predictable happened to New York City’s weekend subway ridership last year: It declined. This is the first year since the Great Recession in late 2008 led to a subsequent dip in ridership in 2009 that weekend trips have gone down, and although many have pointed to Uber as a likely culprit and convenient scapegoat, it is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the downtown.
The MTA released its preliminary ridership figures at its board meetings at the end of February. Overall ridership was 1.7568 billion for the year, off the budgeted amount by around 2.5 percent and slightly off the 2015 pace. Nearly all of the losses came on the weekends.
During the week, the subways are still very crowded. Average weekday ridership is now 5.656 million, up by around one-tenth of a percent over 2015’s figure, and on 39 weekdays (down from 45 in 2015), ridership was over 6 million. But with a few extra weekend days in 2016, ridership sagged. Weekend subway ridership averages dropped from 5.943 million in 2015 to 5.758 million in 2016, a decline of around 3.1 percent.
As frequently happens in transit and rail circles, Uber took the blame. A Times piece called out Uber in a headline, and the interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrar suggested that the increasing popularity in cab hailing apps in New York City is putting pressure on the MTA’s ridership numbers. When you consider that Uber’s VC money is going toward artificially deflating fares and a trip from disjointed neighborhoods miles away can cost under $15 as they did this past weekend, it’s easy to see why Uber is to blame.
But are nearly 200,000 New Yorkers each weekend giving up their subway rides because of Uber or is Uber (and other city improvements such as Citi Bike) replacing these subway rides for other reasons? I’m inclined to believe the latter. Now, it’s certainly possible that Uber has led to a decline in subway ridership; you can chart the ups and downs of taxi usage in NYC right here. But to believe Uber is the driving force behind subway ridership drops requires you to believe that nearly every single new daily taxi ride in NYC in 2016 replaced a subway ride. That seems like a stretch to me.
So what’s the problem? To me, this chicken-and-egg problem starts with the MTA and the simple truth that weekend subway service is abysmal, unpredictable and unreliable on a week-to-week basis. These three factors alone would be enough in any other city to torpedo transit ridership entirely. That the MTA’s hasn’t cratered on weekends yet shows how resilient the subway is to relatively poor service and how necessary it is for New Yorkers to get around.
Getting around the city on a weekend is a total crap shoot. Between necessary work and the MTA’s lack of transparency regarding changes, weekend service can be slow and frustrating to decipher. Press releases on weekend GOs are often not released until Friday afternoon, just a few hours before changes go into effect, and signs at stations are an indecipherable mess of F trains running on the Q line but only southbound in Manhattan while shutting buses run in Brooklyn and G trains replace F trains to Coney Island, whatever that all means to the uninitiated. This weekend’s changes aren’t likely to be in effect next weekend when an entirely new set of service patterns are briefly established with the same few hours of warning for most people. The Weekender is a graphical mess, and it’s often easier just to walk, bike or, you know, open up Uber, hail a Lyft or flag a cab. T
hat there are viable replacements shows that people aren’t wedded to the subway if it’s not convenient; they’re not, on the other hand, eating into subway service simply by existing. It’s still cheaper and usually faster to take a subway. That said, if your peer group is a bunch of upper middle class yuppies, Uber will be the easy and relatively inexpensive replacement for subway service, especially on the weekends. It’s up to the MTA to combat this decline by offering either better weekend service or a clearer picture of how weekend changes will effect our rides.
Of course, in the end, even as the MTA budget relies on ridership projections, we’re a long way from the bad old days. Total ridership in 2016 was up 77.6 percent since ridership was at its nadir in 1982. That’s impressive growth, but with a system aging and struggling to expand, it’s not impossible to believe that the only way to go from here is down.