A funny thing happened on the way to the fare hike. A new study notes that, as the city experienced massive growth, transit ridership — and not car use — spiked. At a time when the MTA is facing an uncertain financial future, this report should bolster proponents of the Richard Ravitch-inspired bailout.
The report, set to be released later this morning by New York transportation guru Bruce Schaller, earned some good ink in The Times this weekend. William Neuman reports:
[A]ccording to a new city study, the volume of traffic on the streets and highways remained largely unchanged, in fact declining slightly. Instead, virtually the entire increase in New Yorkers’ means of transportation during those robust years occurred in mass transit, with a surge in subway, bus and commuter rail riders…
Mr. Schaller said that vehicle trips citywide peaked in 1999 and then leveled off, with a dip in 2001 as a result of the terror attack on the World Trade Center. The overall trend has been largely stable traffic volumes across the city from 1999 through 2007. In contrast, during the years when the economy was most buoyant, from 2003 to 2007, transit ridership soared, increasing about 9 percent during those years, according to the city study.
The difference is even greater when the focus is on the core commercial district of Manhattan, south of 60th Street. From 2003 to 2007, the study found, traffic entering that area fell by 3 percent. During the same period, transit ridership into the same zone rose 12 percent.
However, the most marked change occurred in the level of travel in Manhattan that crossed 60th Street heading south. Traffic from this direction was down 8 percent, even as vehicle traffic from Brooklyn and New Jersey was largely unchanged. At the same time, transit and commuter rail ridership going south and crossing 60th Street increased.
Basically, what the city is seeing is a form of congestion policing. As travel into and out of Manhattan became increasingly frustrating and time-consuming, commuters embraced transit as a viable alternate. Not content to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic up and down Sixth Ave., New Yorkers are now more likely to take the subway. It is, in other words, the perfect argument for congestion pricing proponents who want to show how a fee would decrease traffic by a greater degree.
But beyond the obvious, this report also shows why the MTA needs its bailout plan, Ravitch-approved or otherwise. As the city grew economically, transit ridership surged. If the MTA cannot keep the system running even as it is now, the city’s economy will slowly grind to a halt. We’ve seen it happen in the 1970s, and we’re dangerously close to that precipice again. The economy will lead transit numbers up, but declining transit reliability will lead the economy down.
The MTA, for its part, gets it. Neuman quotes William M. Wheeler, the MTA’s director of planning. “The increase in transit has paced the economy. They’re going hand in hand. I think it’s pretty compelling,” he said. “I guess now the question is what’s in the future. The challenge is going to be, can you have an adequately funded transit system to be there for that economic growth.”
That is a very good question indeed.