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.