Home MTA Economics Could the economy sink subway ridership?

Could the economy sink subway ridership?

by Benjamin Kabak

Things did not look good for me when I arrived down on the platform at 7th Ave. in Brooklyn at around 8:40 a.m. yesterday morning. A Q train was pulling in, and I thought I’d hop it to DeKalb and switch to my W. 4th St-bound B.

There was but one catch. This Q train was far too crowded to board. When the B then pulled up, it too was far too crowded to board, and a subsequent Q suffered the same fate. When a second Q pulled up moments later, I was able to cram my way in for the short hop to DeKalb. Then, I had to wait nearly 15 minutes for a B train. As usual, at no point did the MTA announce a problem, and it wasn’t until I arrived late to class that I learned I suffered through some good old “residual delays.”

Except I hadn’t really. A steady stream of Q trains kept arriving, but they were too full. Simply put, the demands of the ridership could not, for a morning, keep up with the supply of the trains New York City Transit had to offer.

This overcrowding to an extreme isn’t a new phenomenon. The MTA’s ridership levels over the last few years have approached records set over fifty years ago, and overcrowded trains have become a major problem.

Perhaps, though, the end is in sight. With thousands of people losing their jobs due to the recent economic slowdown, the MTA expects ridership levels to end their climb. Marlene Naanes has the report:

Transit ridership is at a 40-year high, continuing a steady increase since 1996. However, this month City Comptroller Bill Thompson predicted more than 150,000 job losses in the next two years, which could affect the number of people taking trains and buses or being able to afford fares.

An MTA spokesman, however, said that it is unclear if the number of straphangers will decrease. “There will be some reduction in the pace of growth, not necessarily a drop in ridership,” MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said.

In all likelihood, actual ridership won’t decline, but it won’t increase either. The MTA will lose some revenue because they won’t have the projected money from increased ridership, and the agency will still have to deal with overcrowding.

But, to find a silver lining to this cloud — or perhaps it’s the other way around — the trains won’t be even more crowded. This morning, as I crammed myself into a Q train packed to the gills with people, I could barely move. I doubt it could actually get much worse.

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rhywun October 30, 2008 - 12:25 am

“There will be some reduction in the pace of growth, not necessarily a drop in ridership,”

Not that this will stop them from cutting service anyway.

David Ross October 30, 2008 - 5:47 am

Actually, you HAD suffered through residual delays. A train’s emergency brakes had activated at Seventh Avenue about a half hour before you got there, and it took over 15 minutes to get things moving again.


Will the Second Avenue Subway be Cancelled Once Again? « the transport politic October 30, 2008 - 7:27 am

[…] to go down because ridership seems to be increasing or at least staying steady, according to Second Avenue Sagas – New Yorkers seem positively giddy about their subway system, even during an economic crisis. But […]

the transport politic October 30, 2008 - 7:30 am

The financial crisis is almost certainly going to put the MTA in a huge bind. will it be able leverage its budget in such a way that doesn’t sacrifice service? How will it do that without forcing the cancellation of the Second Avenue Subway? Read more at the transport politic.

Ed October 30, 2008 - 8:54 am

So because there is an economic downtown, people will cut back on using the subway? Does this make sense? People still have to get go work somehow. What will happen is that people will cut back on driving and on taxis and use the subway more. Of course it would nice to have data on past downturns to see if I am right.

Now overcrowding, without better crowd control methods from the MTA (look at the Tokyo metro for ideas), will set a ceiling on ridership. I am seriously considering taking the bus to work when I resume commuting, even though I know the bus will literally take an hour longer, simply to avoid having to use the Lexington Avenue line during rush hour.

Kid Twist October 30, 2008 - 9:07 am

No, people who don’t have jobs don’t go to work at all, whether by train or bus or car. Subway usage falls in every recession. Annual ridership figures have always tracked the city’s fortunes in recent decades.

Kai October 30, 2008 - 11:46 am

I doubt the unemployed will sit at home all day. I assume they’ll be interviewing for new jobs, attending career fairs, etc. It might actually help by decondensing rush hour! Additionally there will be an influx of people from smaller cities coming to NYC to look for jobs. If you have one of the few white collar jobs in a small city in Pennsylvania and you lose it, you don’t have much choice but to move to a big city.

Kid Twist October 30, 2008 - 1:12 pm

Who do you think watches all those daytime reruns of Who’s the Boss?

Kid Twist October 30, 2008 - 9:04 am

Why would you take the Q to DeKalb to wait for the B? You might as well just wait for the very same B train at Seventh Avenue. They’re on the same track.

Benjamin Kabak October 30, 2008 - 9:12 am

I’m glad you asked.

It’s nearly impossible to get on the B at 7th Ave., but since that train empties out at DeKalb, I’ll take whatever comes first. If a Q shows up, I’ll wait. If a B shows up, I’ll attempt to cram myself in. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to let the B because the train is just too crowded. The Brighton Express is a rather popular line, and the trains run only every eight minutes during the morning rush.

Kid Twist October 30, 2008 - 1:11 pm

Makes sense. Thanks.
Is there any point in getting off at Atlantic to catch a D train, or is the walk to Pacific Street a waste of time?

Benjamin Kabak October 30, 2008 - 2:41 pm

The walk to Pacific St. is generally a waste of time. In the amount of time it takes for me to make that walk, I can just wait for a B to show up. From my apartment, I could go to Union St. and take an M/R to Pacific St for the D. I could go to Grand Army Plaza and take a 2/3 to Atlantic and walk or I can take the B (or Q). I’ve experimented. The B/Q switch is the best.

herenthere October 30, 2008 - 8:27 pm

I think ridership may go up for riders in the suburbs/non-Manhattan. I’m increasingly confronted by riders (or I approach them b/c I’m just too kind) in Queens who ask the simplest questions that any long-time commuter would know. For instance, earlier this week at my F stop, a 50s couple asked whether how they could get to Times Square. I told them and the wife said excitedly, “This is our first time taking the subway!” And she then proceeded to take a pic of the dark subway tunnel. Tourists?…maybe. People who can no longer afford to drive daily into Manhattan?…more likely.

Alon Levy October 30, 2008 - 11:58 pm

There are more and more tourists who stay in hotels outside Midtown. Hotel prices have skyrocketed in the last decade – I believe a room at the Waldorf went for $200/night in 2001, while now even an off-brand hotel in Midtown can take $400-500.

It’s entirely possible these people are just tourists who have to stay in Queens.


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