Over the past few years, I’ve fallen back on a cliched line to discuss current record transit ridership: If it seems crowded in the subways, it is. The MTA has seen crowds not approached since the days of elevated trains running through the city, and for 2015, the agency expects at least 55 weekdays where daily ridership tops 6 million. That’s 11 weeks out of the year of very crowded subway trains, and it’s beginning to show around the margins.
For the MTA, these ridership figures blow away previous years’ totals. In 2014, the MTA saw 29 weekdays where ridership topped 6 million, and in 2013 and for decades before that, there were none. Meanwhile, the 12-month rolling average ridership through the first half of the year was up by nearly 125,000 passengers per day over the previous year, and we are on the cusp of the busiest three months of the year for subway ridership. It’s crowded, and it’s only getting worse.
Meanwhile, I’ve had the opportunity recently to ride during off-peak and midday hours, and the service has been subpar. Due to the MTA’s own load guidelines, which they can adjust on a whim, train waits are long — longer than they were for any service when I was in Berlin, Stockholm or Paris (or even Boston and Chicago) this past spring and summer. Weeknight service isn’t any better. Even with a problem on the 4 train, Brooklyn-bound Lexington Ave. IRT trains were running at uneven headways with 15-20 minutes between some trains and two minutes between others. Service is infrequent enough to be annoying and unreliably uneven. The MTA needs to do better as ridership growth shows no signs of slowing.
And that brings me to Thursday and Friday in New York City. Pope Francis-mania hits New York City later today, and with it have come predictions of congestion disaster 2K15. Numerous midtown streets will be closed at various points in the day, and city officials have asked — but, for some mystical reason, not required — people to leave their cars at home. The MTA is rerouting bus routes up the wazoo, and Staten Island residents are being asked to take the ferry rather than driving. The note on subway service is less than comforting:
The MTA New York City Subway system carries up to 6 million people on an average weekday, and will be able to accommodate additional customers attending papal events. Subway managers will be prepared to adjust train operations as necessary based on conditions in stations near those events. Additional customer service personnel will be on duty in subway stations near papal events to assist customers as they enter and leave the system.
With everyone being asked to be mindful of travel, the subways are bound to be even more crowded, but the MTA is committing to shorter headways or more frequent service. The attitude here seems to be “Oh, we can handle it.” That’s all well and good, but ask that to someone jammed against a door of a packed Q train trying to get home from work tomorrow afternoon.
I’m concerned we’ve reached a point where subway service isn’t adequate for the crowds, but due to funding constraints and artificially inflated load guidelines that don’t require more service until trains are packed, the MTA can’t or won’t do much about it. Hopefully, this week’s events with the Pope prove me wrong, and everything moves underground as it’s supposed to. But if it seems crowded, well, that’s because it is.