Home New York City Transit Where have all the transit riders gone?

Where have all the transit riders gone?

by Benjamin Kabak

A few charts, along with some MTA editorializing, courtesy of the May 2018 MTA Board committee briefing book for the Transit Committee. The committee will be meeting in the morning to ostensibly discuss these materials, though it is anticipated that Andy Byford’s long-awaited subway rescue and Transit reorganization plan will take up the bulk of everyone’s attention. As these charts show, he has his work cut out for him.

And now a few brief thoughts: The MTA doesn’t really seem to know what’s driving these ridership declines. A bunch of months ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo claimed bus ridership declines were acceptable since subway ridership was on the rise, but it’s clear that’s not the case right now. Meanwhile, the agency has blamed the weather and higher fares for the declines in subway ridership and bus ridership respectively, but this seems to be a shot in the dark. Weather wasn’t noticeably worse over the past year, and subway ridership has been on a long-term decline as the city’s economy has seen job increases over the past 12 months. In my view, ridership is on the decline because service has been unreliable and unpredictable, and it’s creating a negative feedback loop in which more and more potential subway riders seek alternate means of travel.

Meanwhile, fare revenue for Transit from the start of 2018 through the end of March was around $38.3 million below expectations. If these trends continue throughout the year, the agency could be looking at an unanticipated budget gap of around $150 million. For an agency that operates on razor-thin margins, losing a significant chunk of ridership revenue could be a problem. For now, the MTA is adding subway service on some lines and focusing on ways to save the system. But it’s alarming that ridership is declining, the MTA doesn’t know why and any urgency around stopping the bleeding of paying customers seems nonexistent. Clearly this is a story worth watching as 2018 unfolds.

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dannyb May 21, 2018 - 12:30 am

This continuing decline makes me wonder about the true NYC employment figures. Something like 99 pct of riders getting on between 7 and 9 am are heading to work or school.
No one, make that NO ONE, gets on board voluntarily at those times.
So… if ridership is dropping, I’m concerned that emplyment is dropping, too.
It would be a great bit of data mining to get an hourly breakdown of ridership and see what’s happening station by station during rush hours.

bjartur May 21, 2018 - 1:55 am

The majority of people working those jobs which start around 8 AM probably also work Monday to Friday… If the NYC employment figures were erroneous, wouldn’t you expect weekday ridership to decrease more than weekend ridership? Not only do the data not show this, the opposite seems to be the case (particularly on the subway), at least from the figure provided.

T-bo May 22, 2018 - 8:59 pm

Where are those stats breaking this down by time and line?

JJJ May 21, 2018 - 11:05 am

No, it’s the opposite.

“and subway ridership has been on a long-term decline as the city’s economy has seen job increases over the past 12 months.”

As the economy goes up, transit ridership goes down. Employed people (in NYC) can afford an Uber. Employed people outside the city can afford a car.

SEAN May 21, 2018 - 12:17 pm

JJJ, But if you live outside the city & work inside, the odds are you aren’t driving to work. Look at NJT, Metro-North, the LIRR & NY Waterway & tell me how all those riders would get to Manhattan if most of them drove?

The answer is not… they would work elsewhere because they don’t now.

JJJ May 21, 2018 - 3:12 pm

Sean, as the economy improves, so does mobility. You can move closer to your job OR switch jobs to one more convenient to you.

SEAN May 21, 2018 - 8:00 pm

as the economy improves, so does mobility. You can move closer to your job OR switch jobs to one more convenient to you.

You are under the assumption that someone can afford to move closer to a job or that mythical job pays the same or more than the prior one. Most newer jobs are part time without health benefits & have real wages that are lower than those lost a decade ago.

I suggest looking up Richard wolf an economist on YouTube.

anon_coward May 23, 2018 - 8:19 pm

Not true. My current employer, a lot of people work something like 2 hours away and most of them don’t come into the office 5 days a week. The same with my last employer, a lot of people worked remotely. Some people I’d see once a month or so.

A lot of people own homes. They don’t want to sell and rent just to be closer to the city. There is no way I’d voluntarily rent again.

Michael May 27, 2018 - 6:46 am

It is pretty obvious millions of people do already drive into the city to work based on the amount of traffic on the highways going in and the number of underground parking lots in every neighborhood.

SEAN May 27, 2018 - 11:32 am

But as a percentage, it’s rather small as most people couldn’t afford to pay both tolls & the garage fees witch are rather steep. And they are that way for a reason as each space has high value & costs attached to them & cant be given away on the cheep.

As I said before… imagine every MNR, LIRR & NJT rider driving to Manhattan for work? It would be total gridlock & the suburbs wouldn’t save you as the jams would grow like a cancer in all directions.

Phantom May 21, 2018 - 6:36 am

There is an increasing national trend of office workers working from home some of the time.

And there is a minor siphoning away of bus / subway riders by the NYC Ferry service

anon_coward May 21, 2018 - 8:45 am

Lots of people work from home. Some of the developers in my company are only there 2-3 days a week for meetings. Management doesn’t come in Friday and the office is a almost empty.

Same thing with my last employer. My wife has a few dozen people under her and I think she’s never seen some of them because they are always working remotely

SEAN May 21, 2018 - 9:37 am

I do wonder how many office workers do have the option to work remotely or from home. There was a prediction some years ago that this would become more excepted or even the norm, but it was a little head of it’s time. Also check the trend lines for PATH, NJT, NY Waterway, the LIRR & Metro-North to get a fuller picture.

I also wonder if Uber has played a small roll in the downtrend.

JJJ May 21, 2018 - 11:05 am

It would be nice to see Friday broken out separately. At my office, around 60% work from home on Fridays.

Phillip Roncoroni May 21, 2018 - 2:44 pm

Most of the software engineers I know work from home fairly regularly. While I’m not aware what percentage of new employment is in the tech sector, there’s probably some correlation there, especially given all the new housing being built is “luxury,” with rents requiring near six-figure salaries to afford.

Andy June 9, 2018 - 7:34 pm

Many of the professional companies in Manhattan (finance, legal, etc) pay for Ubers for employees who are in the office past a certain time of day. If you’re in one of those fields where 60-80 hour work weeks are expected why not spend an extra 2-3 hours in the office each day during the week and get a free Uber home?

BrooklynBus May 21, 2018 - 9:52 am

Ridership has declined due to dumb decisions by the MTA to slow down the trains and by inaction such as not changing bus routes fast enough to meet changing demands and connect new neighborhoods. Short trips should not require three buses and double fare. They have placed all their bets on SBS which clearly is not working according to the City Comptroller.

Now they have come up with a new insanity, elimination of bus stops. If this is supposedly for buses to travel faster, why is their initial route the Q22 where the average speed is 15 mph while the city’s local bus average is 5.7 mph?

The MTA clearly has another agenda here. I submit that is to purposely drive away passengers in order to provide less service to improve their bottom line.

They are going through with the Q22 plan in spite of overwhelming community opposition.


Ian H May 21, 2018 - 9:53 am

I see subway ridership on the decline as a result of both decreased reliability and increased choice. In addition to service and quality issues, many commuters have increased, non-MTA choices at their disposal now as compared to a few years ago – Ferries, Citi Bike and expanded bike infrastructure, Uber/Lyft/Juno/Via including the shared ride services. There is also the continued prevalence of telecommuting and professional workers choosing jobs that provide for flex-time and/or 1-2 telecommute days per week. Adding up the impacts from these factors, which indvidually may be rather small, may account for much of the approximately 3% decline in weekday ridership from 2 years ago.

The weekends are additionally hampered by significant construction, in part recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy, that really impact some lines (i.e. No 2/3 line service between Manhattan and Brooklyn). As such, folks are finding these alternative means to be more effective or efficient for weekend travel, even if they come at greater absolute cost.

Lastly, on weekday travel, another hypothesis that may explain part of the decline is job growth in professional occupations along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, particularly from Downtown Brooklyn through LIC, for which local commuters may opt for biking, ride-share, or even walking, over the subway.

Larry Littlefield May 21, 2018 - 10:09 am

Don’t forget psychology. Back when the subway was working well, being a subway rider was cool.

But now it is clear that to the TWU, MTA brass, city politicians, state politicians, suburban railroad riders, upstate government-dependent anti-tax people, the construction unions and companies, the army of consultants, the seniors cashing in and moving out, those who ride the subway are suckers, losers, cash cows, people to be sneered at and abused.

That sort of contempt had previously been limited to bus riders.

Phantom May 21, 2018 - 10:32 am


I ride the much maligned R train, and find that it ” works well ” a huge percentage of the time.

The system needs work, but I think that a lot of the criticisms are ludicrously overblown.

J Adlai May 21, 2018 - 11:03 am

Of course they are, but perception influences people’s decisions more than reality.

Larry Littlefield May 21, 2018 - 1:13 pm

I mean you’ve had the Mayor openly saying the ferries are for winners, and the subway is for losers, the subway that none of the state politicians and few MTA employees are willing to ride.

The previous Mayor took the train and said it was for winners.

Tim May 21, 2018 - 3:34 pm

I really, really miss Bloomberg’s riding of the 6 train quite often. It actually gave him a little bit of street cred.

He was a far better Mayor, too.

Will May 22, 2018 - 2:54 pm

Yelp and people bitch about him getting a 3 term, well he was technocrat and got the city where it is now especially after 9/11. These term limits really effect good managers running a city abd being lame duck after 2 years if you are terrible and 6 years if you are done with your terms

Peter May 21, 2018 - 10:50 am

People still need to get to work, whether subway is on time or not. I believe the downward trend is a result of people working remotely or the employment data is bogus.

SEAN May 21, 2018 - 12:10 pm

Absolutely the second. Data can be what ever you want it to be. I’ve taken enough courses on test & measurement to know.

Larry Littlefield May 21, 2018 - 1:11 pm

Or, people working remotely, biking, sharing cars, whatever could be a response to the soaring cost and declining service on the trains.

Things haven’t been as horrible lately when I’ve been on the trains. But just as denial, deceit and the fact that media does not consist of transit riders managed to hide the extent of the problem for a few years, so it might take a long time for anyone to believe in the transit system again.

How long? Anybody believes GM makes good cars? Not anyone who remembers the 1970s, or heard about it from their parents.

Larry Littlefield May 21, 2018 - 10:51 am

Not the attitude, however. You saw it among those running things, and now that we know what they were doing, it’s hard to unsee it.

“Find that it ” works well ” a huge percentage of the time.”

We don’t deserve any better? Those who disagree aren’t using the train anymore.

J Adlai May 21, 2018 - 11:02 am

There has been some debate over whether or not ‘Rideshare’ services were causing declining ridership. Back in December, CityLab wrote that Net taxi trips were up 15 percent. That includes the decline in yellow cab ridership. So while some of this growth was likely new discretionary trips, a substantial part of it was likely ridership siphoned off from buses and trains. As long as companies like Uber and Lyft are willing to subsidize riders, and the subway continues aspire to hope it can just maintain the status quo, then the current trend will likely continue. Randall O’Toole’s dream world of cars, cars, CARS is inching ever closer…

SEAN May 21, 2018 - 12:06 pm

That is until no one can move either in a car or on foot. And the suburbs won’t save you as the problem will just expand like a cancer & consume every road at almost every hour.

J Adlai May 23, 2018 - 8:16 am

That day may not necessarily arrive. Keep in mind that most of the growth in Subway ridership was outside of the peak hours: it was during the “shoulders” of the rush hours during the week, and on the weekends. I would not be surprised to simply see traffic during mid-days and weekends begin to mirror the level of congestion seen during rush hours. That’s still not a great outcome, but it’s probably not far off from what a place like Los Angeles already is.

Mike May 21, 2018 - 12:53 pm

One thought: with the nicer weather finally here perhaps more people are starting to walk to their destinations instead of taking the subway. This could especially hold true for suburban commuters whose offices are within a 20 block range of Penn, GCT or the PABT.

Tower18 May 21, 2018 - 4:14 pm

This is me, my walk from Penn Station is about 20 minutes. If it’s even halfway nice, I walk rather than pay my $2.75 and roll the dice on how long it’ll take me to get there. It wasn’t this way even a year ago.

Thomas Schmidt May 21, 2018 - 9:44 pm

As the fare rises inexorably, marginal trips drop out. I’ve walked where the trip is less than 20 minutes because of the time and the cost. People commenting on this blog are less likelY to be affected by the cost than poorer folks. I bet a lot of them walk in better months.

anon_coward May 22, 2018 - 8:40 am

weekends i drive. it’s almost $10 for me to take my kids each way on the subway if I don’t sneak them in.

SEAN May 27, 2018 - 11:36 am

So sneak them in – nobody here will snitch.

jseliger May 21, 2018 - 3:54 pm

ridership is on the decline because service has been unreliable and unpredictable

This seems obvious. People can’t rely on the subway, so anyone who can choose any method aside from the subway does so.

EyesWideShut May 21, 2018 - 5:41 pm

This trend makes perfect sense if you notice that rents have also stagnated in much of NYC over the same time frame. Don’t put two and two together, people.

SEAN May 21, 2018 - 8:09 pm

I saw something recently that indicated that housing prices declined in NYC by 25% YOY…in City Lab I think? Does anyone know?


Phillip Roncoroni May 22, 2018 - 6:21 am

Rents have stagnated on the high end, with all the “luxury” buildings. Because there are only so many six figure engineer jobs out there that can actually afford them.

Larry Littlefield May 22, 2018 - 9:06 am

I’m afraid not trusting federal statistics, rightly or wrongly, is going to be a trend.

The Republicans have been against factual information for some time, always trying to defund statistical agencies. But with soaring public employee pension costs the Democrats are now on board, at least with respect to the Governments Division of the U.S. Census Bureau. Out of concern for that issue, I posted this.


And I’m not the only one worried.


Wonks aren’t a very powerful interest group, and every other interest group, seeking to rape the system in secret, is against them. Businesses, on their civic minded days, had been the constituency for accurate data, but they don’t care anymore.

FYI, the reason that employment could be overstated other than malfeasance is the establishment survey has trouble measuring a big turn in the economy. Brand new businesses can’t be surveyed, their employment levels are only estimated for a year or two until the unemployment insurance tax records come it. When the economy turns, the BLS often finds far more or fewer new businesses than expected.

SEAN May 22, 2018 - 7:58 pm

Job creation stats I assume you know use a technique called “the birth death moddle” that is always reavaluated & ajusted downward after the initial release to the press… usually in secret. This does not include the actual percentage of adults in the workforce (U6). The 3.9% unemployment being quoted is bull as you need to be searching for work to be counted & most here know that this is not the case as Larry Littlefield has pointed out in numerous ways over the past few years.

AMH May 22, 2018 - 1:46 pm

Interestingly, London has seen a decline in ridership as well, owing to changes in work and shopping habits, among other factors.


Larry Littlefield May 22, 2018 - 4:06 pm

“Travel surveys show that the average Londoner made only 2.2 trips (across all transport modes) a day in 2016-17, down 20 per cent from 2006-7. So despite population growth, transport demand has not risen as much as expected. This decline is mirrored across England: between 2002 and 2016 a 9 per cent drop in trips across all modes was recorded.”

Interesting. Work at home. Shop at home. Homeschool. Home entertainment. Could be.

SEAN May 22, 2018 - 8:17 pm

Interesting. Work at home. Shop at home. Homeschool. Home entertainment. Could be.

Larry, Let’s play this out further. Assuming you are correct, what happens to retail & dining across the city & even the nation. Now assume the electronic devices we have depended on for everything suddenly break… where would one go to replace them if physical retail was mostly gone? Also what would replace the empty storefronts?

I ask in all seriousness as this is important on so many levels.

Andy June 9, 2018 - 7:45 pm

I think this is why we are seeing such a proliferation of of new restaurants, microbreweries, niche retail, and the like in “trending” neighborhoods. If you’re able to work from home, you’re more likely than not in a high wage field. You also shop from home (Amazon), for most daily goods. And now with grocery stores starting to deliver, you can even buy that from home.

But, with all of your income, you’re willing to walk a few blocks, say up to 10-15 minutes, for a good fusion restaurant or taphouse or nice clothing store. And don’t forget there is always BiteSquad to deliver straight to your door if you’re feeling lazy or its raining…

Kyle Bell June 11, 2018 - 9:57 am

The blog Granola Shotgun writes about this a lot. The big box stores and the system of roads and competing tax breaks is breaking down and we need something to replace it. I imagine the gas price is a big factor here.

Robert May 23, 2018 - 1:33 am

I think we are all going to just end up like in the movie Surrogates: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrogates

SEAN May 23, 2018 - 8:48 pm

That movie although disconcerting, is a warning on our obsession with electronic devices & our use of social media as there’s nothing social or healthy about it. Please let that sink in before responding as the Facebook scandal was easily predictable, but most had no clue or didn’t care.

steve May 23, 2018 - 3:40 am

Its only this year thats seen a dip though, the total tube numbers are 1014M in 06-07 and 1377M in 16-17, someone is using it. Internet? Uber? not sure anyone has figured out the reason yet.

I would quite expect it to increase again when crossrail comes on line, people adjust to fill capacity, and thats a lot of capacity.

Will May 22, 2018 - 2:46 pm

Its because Subway service sucks compare to other mass transit in the world and bus serice is getting affected by it. Bus service is too slow and SBS is lite lite brt or fast limited

OLDER AND WISER May 22, 2018 - 3:36 pm

Allow me to present an alternative perspective on this topic.

After all the revolutions and sea changes in telecommuting, Uber, bike riding, ferries, etc. and just when subway service has been deteriorating, the drop off in ridership has not been 20%, but 2%. In other words, after the combined impact of all those factors the glass is still 98% full.

That 98% figure no doubt raises budgetary concerns. But it also certifies the continued absolute essentiality of the subway to NYC as a viable place to live, work and conduct business.

SEAN May 22, 2018 - 8:02 pm

Most Definitely.

CG May 23, 2018 - 2:01 pm

Is there any data about how many trips are being cancelled as as result of FastTrack work, or due to worsening delays? I’ve always wondered how many fewer people are taking the trains, on nights and weekends especially, because there are fewer of them – the MTA never seems to beef up the schedule on other lines to make up for those closed for work – the crowding on my lines (1, A, D) seems to be getting worse, not better, even as overall ridership is declining. It’s particularly bad on nights and weekends, when trains are completely full even far away from the core of Manhattan. I’d wonder if the seeming decline in capacity due to fewer trains running would explain part of the decline in ridership, and whether the level of crowding is affected as well.

Wil May 23, 2018 - 4:44 pm

Didnt Fasttrack ended years ago

ChrisC May 23, 2018 - 11:30 pm

Fast track is still going on. There is one this week on ate AC and B as per mta website

BrooklynBus May 24, 2018 - 6:16 pm

Wasn’t Fasttrack supposed to accelerate repairs to get them done quicker? So why are there now more closures than ever with the Action Plan promising even more accelerated repairs? So the question is was Fastrack a failure?

Bryan May 25, 2018 - 4:48 pm

My office does permit WFH, and many folks work at least 1 day a week that way. So I wonder about how much an effect this has on the ridership values, especially when you try to match it to employment percentages.

A few things struck me about that document: one, there’s not enough trains going my way because they aren’t on the schedule. Say whatever you want about congestion but rush-hour A trains are more plentiful per the schedule going downtown & Queens than they are for uptown.

Second are buses. Personally I see a *lot* of near empty MTA buses in Manhattan. So what do I need double-decker buses for? Maybe its different in Queens, or on certain routes, but this is no panacea.

Unchanged routes since the 50s. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re slowly building the 2nd Ave subway, and it *follows* where the 2nd Ave El went. Am I to believe that traffic pattern is still there? Then by all means, let’s rebuild on the route of the 9th Ave El, as well, and they both meet at South Ferry.

I don’t know about the bus lines in question. But there are some up in uptown Manhattan that used to be streetcar routes. Maybe they’re still the best routes; maybe not.

Michael May 27, 2018 - 6:51 am

For me its a combination of things. My job allows WFH and I work 2 days in an office in New Rochelle. It no longer pays for an unlimited if I only take 2 – 3 round trips. Then I discovered the 2 dollar vans in NYC which pick me up where I live near Fordham not close to any trains and drives me directly to Midtown for less than the price of the subway in less time.

Sheldon Burke June 5, 2018 - 11:48 pm

An MTA policy designed to help passengers is extremely annoying and helps no one. Passenger standing on subway platforms and riding on subways and buses are usually subject to incessant loudspeaker announcements, literally one every two minutes. Almost all these announcements are insignificant and completely unnecessary; one example is: “Thank you for riding the MTA”.
These announcements disturb people who want to read, listen to music with headphones or talk to their companions, as well as those who just want peace and quiet during their trip. If someone wanted to discourage people from riding public transit, he couldn’t do a better job than the MTA does with its incessant announcements. Only absolutely essential announcements should be made.

Sheldon Burke June 5, 2018 - 11:49 pm

Music in subway stations is a terrible idea. Only people who seldom or never ride the subway, such as MTA management, could think it’s a good idea. Many riders dislike certain types of music. While a musician or a band may entertain some passengers, he is also bothering others. People shouldn’t have to listen to music that annoys them. Also, the music often disturbs people who want to read or talk to their companions as well as those who just want peace and quiet.

Bands in some stations play extremely loud amplified music that really annoys most passengers. A metal drum band that performs on the 14th St. 4, 5 & 6 train platform plays “music” that sounds like the noise in a loud factory. If someone wanted to discourage people from riding the subway, he couldn’t do a better job than this metal drum band.

Musicians not only annoy people, they also create two dangerous situations.
1. Many station platforms are dangerously overcrowded during peak hours as well as some non-peak hours. Musicians increase the danger simply by occupying platform space.
2. Even a low sound level hinders hearing loudspeaker station announcements. It’s essential riders hear these announcements, particularly emergency announcements. Subway musicians make it difficult or impossible to hear these announcements.

The MTA’s “Music Under New York” program shows the agency is completely out of touch with subway riders. Playing music in subway stations should be prohibited.

Sheldon Burke June 5, 2018 - 11:51 pm

There’s only one significant problem with MTA bus service. It’s the excessive total trip time, from the time a passenger arrives at the bus stop to the time he gets off the bus. Reducing total trip time would result in many more people riding buses and would produce more revenue for the MTA.

Implementing two measures would accomplish more than all the other proposed solutions combined.

1. Bus bunching is by far the major problem. A wait of 20 minutes or more is common, even when buses are scheduled to run every 2 or 3 minutes. A one mile trip requiring a transfer can literally take over an hour. Some cities in the U.S. and abroad have systems that have significantly reduced bus bunching. The MTA should find the best system and implement it in NYC.

2. Fare prepayment has proven to significantly reduce travel time; examples are the M79 and M86 routes. Fare prepayment should be implemented at all bus stops on every route.


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