While drilling down on the 2014 ridership numbers earlier this week, I couldn’t get past the sheer volume of people using the subway each day. It’s hard to conceptualize 5.6 million every day, let alone the 29 weekdays last year with over 6 million riders, and that makes it very hard to figure out a solution for the MTA’s capacity woes that doesn’t involve multi-billion-dollar, decades-long construction efforts.
The easiest thing to do is for me to reel off a bunch of numbers. Times Square saw a whopping 7000 more riders per day last year than over 2013 and over 25,000 more per day in 2014 than in 2009. Grand Central saw a bump of 4000 entrances per day; the new Fulton St. saw nearly 5000 new swipes. Court Square saw nearly 2000 more entrances, and Bedford Ave. on the L, already beyond crowded, witnessed 1300 new swipes. What the Domino Sugar Factory development will mean for L train ridership is up for debate.
But numbers tend to lose their meanings after a while. New Yorkers know the subways are crowded because we’re down there every day. We know that the time to get space on the Manhattan-bound Q from Brooklyn is even earlier or later than it used to be, and we know we can forget about that seat. We know that trying to take a train up or down Lexington Ave. at 6 p.m. is a fool’s errand. We see trains on the weekend that are packed, and we remember when late-night meant empty cars instead of crowded platforms.
While discussing these ridership numbers on Twitter on Monday, a few people were surprised to hear the subway’s popularity were going up in light of the introduction of cab-hail apps such of Uber and Lyft and the raise in popularity of Citi Bike. It’s true that these services serve a purpose and an important one, but to get back to the numbers, they don’t do much for subway ridership. The car-hailing apps have cut into the supremacy of medallioned yellow cabs, but the price point for these services places them well beyond the reach of New Yorkers who rely on the subways day in and day out.
If anything, CitiBike may be able to solve some of the MTA’s capacity problems, others have argued, but the scales don’t line up. The overall subway network has an average ridership of 5.6 million with peaks of over 6 million. On its most popular day — which aligned with a day that saw subway ridership peak as well — New Yorkers took 39,000 rides on Citi Bike. That means Citi Bike accounted for barely six-tenths of one percent of subway ridership, and on average, that figure is closer to three-tenths of one percent.
A sampling of the Citi Bike travel logs suggests, anecdotally at least, that most riders aren’t duplicating subway rides. Even though more than half say their rides are replacing a subway fare, most are crosstown or otherwise replaces buses or walking routes. Furthermore, the crowding issues, particularly on the Lexington Ave. line, begin and end well outside of the current (or any planned) Citi Bike region. The scales just don’t line up.
The truth is that CitiBike can help around the margins. If 2 people out of 1000 opt against taking the 6 train from Grand Central to Union Square, then a few people may be able to get on a train rather than letting it pass. But CitiBike is a solution for the last-mile problem, not the MTA’s current first-mile problem.
To solve the capacity problems requires cost cutting and an infusion of capital dollars. It requires faster construction timelines and a more aggressive plan to bring real bus rapid transit — and not some souped-up express bus service with pre-board fare payment — to New York City. It will require taking an actual stand on political issues that resonant with subway riders, a constituency with great numbers but less access and money than those who aren’t regular subway riders. It’s not easy but it’s necessary. Otherwise, the subways will suffer from the Yogi Berra problem: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”