Home New York City Transit ‘Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.’

‘Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.’

by Benjamin Kabak
Numbers from July show a slight dip in subway ridership. (via MTA)

Numbers from July show a slight dip in subway ridership. (via MTA)

As legend has it, when asked about a popular restaurant, perhaps in New York or perhaps in his native St. Louis (history is vague on the answer), Yankees catcher Yogi Berra uttered the famous line, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about this Yogism in the context of subway ridership as after years of growth, ridership has stagnated and started to slip a little. Have we reached peak subway? Or the are the trains so crowded that no one goes there anymore?

This issue has been percolating throughout 2016, but it came to the forefront in the most recent MTA Board materials. Those materials, released at the end of September, include subway ridership figures through July, and the numbers are starting to sag. Total subway ridership for July was 138.9 million, down from a projected 141.3 million. The MTA believed rain over the July 4th weekend and some New Yorkers’ decisions to extend the long weekend into a mini-vacation led to the variance. It’s quite plausible as subway ridership figures are very sensitive to weather and long weekends.

Now, in a vacuum, missing projected ridership estimates by one percent isn’t that big of a deal, but the year-to-year numbers show a decline. Average daily weekday ridership fell by nearly 2 percent between July of 2015 and July of 2016. Weekend subway ridership, meanwhile, dropped by 3.5 percent between July of 2015 and July of 2016. Again, the MTA blamed rain and vacation, but July continued the year-long trend of ridership either leveling off or declining it.

I had a few thoughts stemming from this trend: First, does it matter? It might if the MTA continues to miss revenue projections due to lower-than-expected fares. It also might matter because we need to understand where these riders are going and why. If the low costs and popularity of cab-sharing apps are sending potential subway riders into cars, that could be a concern for congestion on our streets and a source of long-term competition around the margins for some subway rides. If the continued increase in Citi Bike riders is a factor, this may be indicative of something else at play. It could be that people are fed up with overcrowded rush hour trains that crawl through tunnels and lead to uncomfortable riding conditions because trains are too crowd. It could be something else.

That something else is the second question: What else is going on with the subways? Throughout the same board materials, a variety of other reports indicate service problems. The rolling stock is aging, and failures now occur on average every 120,000 miles (rather than every 143,000 as it was a year ago). On-time performance has dipped to 73.4 percent with a 12-month rolling average of around 68 percent, and wait assessment figures so inconsistent headway gaps, especially during the weekends when getting around time involves deciphering complex and wide-reaching service changes. What if New Yorkers are starting to give up on the subway because service simply isn’t reliable enough?

The subway systems’ renaissance over the past 25 years has been remarkable as annual ridership has grown from 900 million a few decades to 1.7 billion last year without significant increase in track mileage. With new stations and the Second Ave. line set to come online within the next few months, that number will jump again. But it seems that service is starting to come under pressure of all these riders who demand more. Twenty five years ago, the MTA didn’t plan to have 1.7 billion riders in 2015, and it’s not clear that the agency has a plan that will meet today’s ridership demands in 25 years, let alone the demands of whatever ridership could be in 2040. It’s starting to show, and the subways may just be so crowded that no one goes there anymore.

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Jon October 12, 2016 - 11:21 pm

I loved the subway visiting the city as a kid, but I have to commute at odd hours now when they subway sucks. So I drive now which is a lot more convenient.

I’d take the subway again if they could improve service and add lines, but I’m just sick of waiting for a train for 20 minutes and transferring and doing that again in a HOT station. Get some fricken air conditioning down there.

Yan October 13, 2016 - 6:34 pm

air conditioning is impractical in the subway, it would just air out into the street leaving the station no less hot than it was before

Brooklynite October 12, 2016 - 11:34 pm

I suspect that the issue is indeed what you allude to – service (especially during the off-peak) is simply not satisfactory, and therefore people are voting with their wallets and choosing other modes of transit.

During peak hours, the main issue is crowding. The situation has only gotten worse in recent years, with increases in ridership and decreases in capacity* on lines like the Lexington local. While platform controllers are a good place to start, much more needs to be done to make peak hour subway commuting good enough to encourage people who have alternatives to switch to it. Of course, reliability is also a big issue: for many people, the seemingly perennial signal problems, sick customers, cats on tracks, etc. make taking the subway too risky of a game in terms of punctuality. The fix for this lies in a mix of more maintenance funding, more efficient maintenance, and better service recovery, but each of those things is harder than it sounds.

During the weekend, once you’ve determined that your train is running on that particular day, and figured out (or assumed) that it’ll get you to your destination, you’ll often be waiting on the order of 5-10 minutes for a train that’s almost as crowded as during peak hours. When contrasted with a faster, more convenient (though more expensive) mode like Uber, it’s no wonder that the subway loses out. The fixes for this seem to be more frequent service (which costs money and requires flagging rule changes) and better communication (although with the sheer amount of work and the rate at which the work is currently performed, even perfect communication won’t go far enough).

*Signal modifications within the last two or three years have reduced train throughput, notably on the Lex local. I believe the currently accepted capacity there is in the low 20s tph.

Adirondacker12800 October 13, 2016 - 1:55 am

The alternative to the trains, subway or suburban, is road. We all know roads are never congested, there’s never an accident that slows things up and the weather is always perfect.

Brooklynite October 13, 2016 - 11:54 pm

That’s exactly the point. Despite the numerous problems with road transportation, people are still choosing it over the subway. That’s an issue.

MF October 13, 2016 - 10:07 am

5-10 minutes? Try riding the Brighton Line on the weekend.

Or during rush hour.

Or ever.

Yan October 13, 2016 - 6:35 pm

Brighton line has its moments, sometimes its good sometimes its bad

Andrew October 13, 2016 - 9:35 am

Is weekend ridership really higher than weekday ridership, as the graph suggests? That strikes me as very unlikely, isolated exceptions aside (e.g. parts of the L.)

Benjamin Kabak October 13, 2016 - 9:38 am

It’s Saturday + Sunday vs. average weekday. So it’s not a one-to-one comparison.

tacony October 13, 2016 - 9:45 am

Subway reliability seemed, on the lines I ride, to be awful this year through the summer, but seems to have miraculously improved post-Labor Day. It seems as if whoever was managing headways came back from summer vacation and started doing their job again. It was a frustrating summer.

But the problem remains: the scheduled headways are poor outside of rush hours, and they don’t stick to them. If I wake up to go into work too early I often have to wait too long. The same for working late. I often get out around 9 or 10pm and invariably face issues with delays and having to fight my way onto a train. Is it any wonder people would defect to Uber or cabs or Citi Bikes or driving their cars or just walking?

What does it say that “congestion” is apparently a major problem, yet at the same time people opt for an Uber over the subway? They’d rather sit in that “congestion” than avoid it and be whisked to their destination on the subway? It seems surface traffic congestion actually isn’t bad enough to be worse than taking the subway! And it’s objectively true that outside of the height of rush hour it’s usually quicker to take an Uber or cab almost anywhere than it is to take transit, even if there’s not a service disruption and everything goes as planned. Even during rush hour, Uber ran its $5 Manhattan “pool” promotion all summer and I think it did pretty well. Many apparently felt that paying double the MTA fare to be chauffeured to their destination in an air conditioned car sitting in rush hour traffic was preferable to suffering in a 100º station watching countdown clocks and listening to screeching-loud yet barely-understable announcements about the cause of the latest delay.

People used to only be able to hail cabs on the street if they were in Manhattan-below-96th. Now that we have e-hailing and Green Cabs, the whole city can do it with ease. (Remember haggling with gypsy cabs and calling car services that never showed up? Ugh!) I wouldn’t see this as a bad thing. The MTA should see them as competitors to beat, not threats to be afraid of.

Tower18 October 14, 2016 - 3:21 pm

I would love to see Manhattan Uber Pool usage geographically. I am willing to bet a large portion of their ridership is centered on the UES…riders who are already used to taxi pool (if you’re far east, that is) and who can’t tolerate the Lex. Congestion on the west side is not as bad, and consequently I bet more are willing to take transit because they know they’ll almost certainly get on the first train that comes, even if it’s crowded.

JJJJ October 13, 2016 - 9:55 am

The competition (Uber etc) isnt in a vacuum. MTA fares have risen as car service prices have fallen.

Jeff October 13, 2016 - 10:52 am

Competition is increasing and the subways are seeing the effects of that.

I don’t see this trend reversing anytime soon, especially with robo car service on the cusp of being introduced (Singapore is already getting this service).

SEAN October 13, 2016 - 11:23 am

I do. Once the newness of these ride sharing services wares off & time stuck on the road becomes more of a factor, usage will level off. Citybike will fill a roll as well, but the subway will be the primary form of movement throughout NYC. If every subway rider who could use uber did so, it wouldn’t be long until there was total gridlock.

Jeff October 13, 2016 - 3:52 pm

Ride sharing encourages people in Manhattan (and potentially in the outer boroughs if the services continue to expand) to not have to drive or take taxis/solo Ubers. I don’t think there’s any evidence that it’s adding to congestion. On the contrary.

SEAN October 13, 2016 - 4:07 pm

Not yet. But if enough people do swich to uber & others,it will creat more congestion in the longterm.

Duke October 14, 2016 - 12:01 am

I don’t know about the novelty wearing off but road capacity will definitely limit how much people can rideshare.

Still, this trend would seem to point to decreasing off-peak subway ridership and increasing off-peak roadway congestion. Calling an Uber at 5 PM on Tuesday is foolish. But if it’s 11 PM, it’s a more comfortable, more reliable, and probably also faster way to get home than the subway.

Tom October 13, 2016 - 11:00 am

What makes me nervous about this is the chicken and egg concept.

1) Less people take the train because it’s crowded and poorly maintained
2) MTA announces that they are cutting service due to reduction in ridership.

I hope that wiser heads prevail and see that more service would help, but a constantly cash-strapped agency would love any excuse to save money.

SEAN October 13, 2016 - 11:26 am

We’re not quite there yet, but point taken.

Larry Littlefield October 13, 2016 - 12:19 pm

The city’s resident labor force has also started to drop after years of strong growth.

Perhaps young workers are giving up on NYC, not just the subway.


I think of the subway as a real time economic indicator.

Duke October 13, 2016 - 11:49 pm

This could also simply be due to baby boomers retiring.

Adirondacker12800 October 14, 2016 - 2:58 am

Most employers, when someone retires, put someone else in the job. That filters all the way down to new hires.

Larry Littlefield October 14, 2016 - 9:28 am

Baby boomers are retiring everywhere, leading to labor force declines in many places.

But NYC was having an influx of young workers to more than offset this. That seems to have slowed.

Adirondacker12800 October 14, 2016 - 12:24 pm

That leads to the unemployment rate going down.
The head of accounting retires because she’s 66, the 50 year old senior accountant gets promoted to head of accounting. The 40 year old plain ol’ accountant gets promoted to senior. They hire the 30 year old to be the new plain ol’ accountant. The place he worked at hires a recent college graduate with a degree in accounting.
It works the same way with plumbers and cops and waitresses and …

pete October 13, 2016 - 12:43 pm

The subway is unusable off-peak and on weekends. If its not rush hour, every line has miles of 5 mph GO, every night, every weekend. A limited stop bus would be faster than the subway under the street going 5 mph. The MTA has no plans to ever end the GOs. CBTC will be obsolete and require more GOs to replace with the next generation of parts, on the day it is “finished”. The track renewal is slow and poor quality work. It takes 2 months of weekday night closures to replace the track between 2 stations, on 1 track. There are 4 tracks. It will take 10 years to replace the tracks on Queens Blvd line. By then start all over again. This is unsustainable. Last night I saw a worker “smoothing” a rail joint with an angle grinder by hand instead of proper MOW equipment the way every other railroad does on planet earth.

John October 13, 2016 - 2:43 pm

This is definitely part of it. I know many people who don’t leave their respective boroughs on the weekend. Maybe it’s because there’s a lot more going on these days in Brooklyn and Queens and it’s not as necessary as it was before to make the trip into the city, but I’ve definitely noticed with myself and a lot of my friends – we either stay local or head out of town where the trains don’t reach.

Brian October 13, 2016 - 4:02 pm

I’ve definitely gotten more frustrated by the endless length of repair projects, and I’m sure others are too. Every time I have a chance to see workers, they seem to all be standing around, or sitting in a car playing with their cell phones.

And now that Citibike is in my neighborhood, its much easier to hop on that.

Adding to the frustration are the new digital monitors being installed in some of the B-division stations the purport to show when the next trains arrive. I wondered how they could work until someone pointed out they only list the “scheduled” times for the train arrivals. Posting that info makes it even more annoying waiting for a train that is supposedly “Now arriving!”

James Scully October 13, 2016 - 3:20 pm

I live near the last stop on the R at 95th Street in Bay Ridge and commute into Rockefeller Center, so I realize I’m at the extreme end of the MTA travel spectrum. In the last year (I used to work at 1WTC) I’ve noticed more daily issues around rush hour than ever before. There’s seemingly an “incident” or a “switch malfunction” or something of the like—especially during rush hour, on almost a daily basis. Also, there are many days where there will be three or four express trains for every local that come.

The other night I had an appt near Atlantic-Pacific. I grabbed a train home at 7:30. It didn’t get to 95th Street until 8:10. It took 40 minutes to travel the length of 4th avenue. I could have gotten home sooner if someone pushed me in a wheelbarrow. The stats definitely back up the eye test. I wonder if people are just trying to use any other means of transportation besides the subway.

Also, the N is essentially a pretend express train. Many times I’ll be on an R train in Brooklyn at 59th as an N pulls in. Often, at 36th street (the next stop for the southbound N), as the R train pulls in, the N train does as well. Why is an express train taking the same amount of time as a local to go those stops?

I think there are other issues too. For instance, we have two Broadway locals and a Broadway express in the N,R, and Q. Trains seem to be simultaneously overcrowded both with passengers and on the lines themselves, and yet there are more breakdowns and yet (paranoia-rearing its head) it always feels like trains I don’t need arrive and the one I do takes much longer.

Spendmore Wastemor October 13, 2016 - 9:35 pm

Bay Ridge? Be happy you don’t live in Coney Island!

mister October 14, 2016 - 7:59 am

Often, at 36th street (the next stop for the southbound N), as the R train pulls in, the N train does as well. Why is an express train taking the same amount of time as a local to go those stops?

You are tackling one of my major pet peeves with MTA’s current policy on train speeds.

MTA has, willingly, slowed trains down all throughout the system unnecessarily by adding timers, signals that are set to danger regardless of whether a train is ahead of them. They only clear when a predetermined amount of time elapses, so if the train travels at the maximum speed for that timer, it will change from red to green right as the train reaches the signal. Since that, understandably, can cause some anxiety, many train operators travel much slower. MTA has been deploying timers at a furious pace over the last decade.

Perhaps, if MTA offered faster service that was more competitive on travel times, ridership would not have begun declining.

AMH October 14, 2016 - 4:46 pm

I have noticed this as well, but assumed that it was congestion. Why is this happening?

Brooklynite October 14, 2016 - 7:04 pm

Timers began proliferating after the Union Square crash in 1991 and the Williamsburg crash four years later, and haven’t really stopped. The reasons are mostly overly conservative safety restrictions (which nobody challenges because arguing against “safety” is bad PR) and occasional MOW requests to slow trains crossing switches to make the switch components last longer.

Al October 15, 2016 - 6:34 pm

There is also the refusal to install magnetic track brakes to enhance emergency braking performance. Hence, we have slower speeds, longer trip times and lower line capacity. All of which drive up per passenger labor and equipment costs.

Brooklynite October 16, 2016 - 10:57 pm

It’s not just the lack of track brakes – changes in the composition of brake shoes in the last few decades have also worsened emergency braking performance (thus requiring signal changes that reduce capacity).

Rob October 13, 2016 - 8:42 pm

Weekends this past summer: the 1 train on the UWS seemed to be replaced by a shuttle bus more often than not, and it was just too confusing to bother.
Weekdays: the crowding makes people skip the 1, hop on a Citibike, and travel to another train station (IND at 59th Street) or their destination.

@Brian wrote above that the B Division countdown clocks are not ‘real-time’ but based on a schedule. Please tell me that he is wrong.

Brooklynite October 13, 2016 - 11:57 pm

The new departure boards on the N/Q/R between 23rd and Lex/59th are (almost entirely) real-time. The On-the-Go kiosks do indeed display countdown clocks that give schedule-based information.

mister October 14, 2016 - 8:08 am

Looking at the chart,

-Weekday ridership has flattened. It’s not growing, but it’s not really dropping either.

-Weekend ridership has steadily declined.

We can’t know for sure that this is the case, but it would seem that since weekend riders can generally make use of more options that are superior to mass transit on both comfort and travel time more riders are making the switch. As rideshare offerings become more ubiquitous and autonomous cars begin deploying, it will only be a matter of time before these services become competitive with MTA on price as well, at which point MTA will either have to reinvent itself, or it will begin to fail.

s. October 14, 2016 - 10:11 pm

Where is the service on the Lexington Avenue Line on the 4 & 6 line. Still this is the lie in the poll. If anyone can prove there more ridership on Lexington Avenue Line on the 4 & 6 line than you are correct…Lexington Avenue Line 4 & 6 line need service increase. Not 5 line. For what reason 5 line go to 7 avenue line it worthless..


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