Once upon a time, before the 2010 cuts decimated transit service in NYC, the MTA worked to ensure that off-peak subway service met increasing demands. From 2000 until 2010, as off-peak demand, especially between 5 a.m.-7 a.m., increased, the MTA responded in turn, adding more service so that the percentage of off-peak trains generally aligned with the percentage of riders using the system during these early hours. But since 2010, as New York City’s economy has rebounded from the depths of the recession and off-peak commuting has increased, the MTA hasn’t added service at a commensurate level, and this service gap is hurting New York’s lower-income workers, according to a new report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.
“During rush hour, we’re packed into subway cars like sardines. But outside traditional ‘9-to-5’ travel, off-peak service is fundamentally failing to meet demand. It’s a crisis within a crisis, because over the past decade, the nature of our economy has changed,” Stringer said in a statement, “and ridership late-nights and early mornings has risen while actual service to match it has not. That means that those who need service to get to work during non-traditional hours are stuck with a crisis not of overcrowding, but of infrequency.”
The crux of Stringer’s argument is the chart above. Based on the nature of New York City’s economic recovery, as more jobs have shifted outside of the 9-to-5 realm, the MTA has not added service to meet demand. Thus, as Stringer put it, more riders are waiting longer for more crowded trains in the morning even as the MTA has engaged in an on-again, off-again PR campaign to ask riders to shift travel outside of the peak hours. Furthermore, riders who need to commute during these off-hours are generally earning around 20% less than those who travel for traditional peak-hour jobs. They can ill-afford sub-par transit service, but that’s what they’re getting.
The numbers are stark: Since 2010, ridership to and from Manhattan has jumped by 14% in the two hours before 7 a.m. and by 13 percent in the four hours after 7 p.m. Meanwhile, over the same period of time, train service declined by 3 percent between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and increased by only 3 percent between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Thus, anecdotes of 10:30 p.m. trains packed to crush load are borne out by numbers that show service failing to keep pace with ridership trends. As Stringer notes, these unreliable commutes can lead to reprimands at work, docked pay, termination and a general slow-down in productivity. His office had previously estimated that subway delays cost around $400 million annually in lost productivity and wages.
Stringer’s report has some interesting trend information concerning commutes. As ridership has exploded over the past 30 years, commuting patterns have undergone a dramatic shift. In 1985, a whopping 49 percent of daily ridership into the Manhattan central business district occurred between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Now that number is only around 28 percent. In essence, all of the people riding in 1985 between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. are still doing so (and then some), but off-hour commuting which was non-existent to a combination of safety concerns and lack of jobs has exploded.
Meanwhile, people are waiting much longer. Stringer’s report notes as follows:
While the MTA may be restricted from increasing frequencies in peak hours due to aging infrastructure and underinvestment, these capacity constraints are less relevant in the early morning and late evening. In fact, the MTA runs 60 percent fewer trains from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. than it does from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 38 percent fewer from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Clearly, there is ample train and track capacity at these hours.
This dramatic decline in off-peak subway service, of course, leads to significantly longer wait times for riders. During the morning rush hour, for instance, 87 percent of subway lines run more than six trains per hour and 36 percent run more than 12. That means that passengers will rarely wait more than five or ten minutes for a train—provided all goes well.
By contrast, in the evening (8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.) and early morning (5:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.)—when a growing number of workers depend on public transit—subway service is significantly diminished. Just 47 percent of subway lines maintain headways of less than 10 minutes in the evening and only 10 percent maintain frequencies of less than 5 minutes. In the early morning, meanwhile, only 43 percent have headways of less than 10 minutes and zero have headways of less than five minutes. Looking at individual lines, the biggest drop-offs in the early morning are on the 1, 6, 7, B, and W trains, where hourly throughput declines by more than 50 percent in the peak direction, as compared to the A.M. rush. In the evening hours, the 4, 5, A, B, and F lines experience a similar fall in service.
This is, of course, not a surprise to those who have tried to ride outside of peak hours. Waits are noticeably longer, and trains tend to be nearly just as crowded off-peak on some lines as during the peak due to these increased headways. As I mentioned, it’s particularly jarring in the context of numerous MTA officials urging those with flexibility to commute at off-hours to do so. Percentagewise, at least, a significant number of commuters have moved to these so-called off-peak timeslots, but the MTA hasn’t provided a carrot in the form of increased service to go with the stick.
Where I find Stringer’s report lacking however is in its messaging. The recommendations are on point; the MTA, he says, should perform a comprehensive review of scheduling and strongly consider how latent or induced demand can further drive up off-peak commuting. But in releasing the report to the public, he also tried to use it as a crudgel to beat on the drum of city support for the MTA’s subway action plan. He says city support of the subway action plan will ensure the trains run on time, but he could use this report to call for the subway action plan to directly add more off-peak service. It would be a better use of the money anyway than the SAP band aid that many think won’t actually fix anyone’s commute.
Ultimately, though, the overall message is one worth remembering: Yes, the MTA needs a new signal system and a comprehensive overhaul of its procurement and construction processes. By as with the signal timers, commutes are worse than they should be because of choices made at the MTA. The agency is not a bystander in the accelerated slow-motion collapse of the city’s transit system.