After a few months’ delay and some gentle nudging on social media over the past few weeks, the MTA this month finally released detailed ridership figures for 2017, and it’s not hard to see why the agency delayed releasing these numbers, as they usually do, in May. In short, 2017 was not a good year for the New York City Subway (and 2018 is shaping up to worse). The decline echoes with ramifications well beyond the confines of New York City Transit’s budget projections. Let’s dive in.
We’ll start with the bad, and the bad is pretty bad. Following years of unreliable service and constant subway disruptions, ridership dropped for the second consecutive year, and the total 2017 subway ridership was 1.727 billion, down by nearly 30 million riders from 2016. Last year’s figure is still historically high, but it’s the lowest annual total ridership since 2013 when the MTA recorded 1.707 billion passengers. The picture isn’t much prettier this year as, through May, average weekday ridership was down around 1.6 percent and average weekend ridership is off last year’s pace by nearly 6 percent. It’s very likely that 2018 will see the lowest annual subway ridership total since 2012, and this will represent the first four-year decline since 1988-1991 when a recession and rising crime rates led to the ridership decline.
To me, this decline represents a problem. Crime in New York is at historic lows, and the city’s economy and job market are strong. All leading indicators suggest that subway ridership should be booming, not cratering. But it’s not, and it’s worth pondering where these trips are going. By and large, the granular ridership figures show that the decline is generally concentrated in the off-peak and weekend slots. Anecdotally, more New Yorkers simply aren’t leaving their neighborhoods via subways on the weekend, and the city’s economy will be worse off for it. It’s also safe to assume that some people will rely on bikes and bike share while others will use for-hire vehicles or private automobiles. Thus, as subway service grows less reliable and ridership declines, the streets will become more clogged with cars (and the congestion and air quality will be worse). This is not a positive downward spiral, and it’s one with which city politicians should be concerned.
To make matters worse, this decline in total annual subway ridership comes after the MTA spend a few billion dollars to open up the three new stops along Second Ave. (and a few years after the 7 line extension opened). Thus, ridership is declining in spite of more revenue-service track miles. Even though the subways are still crowded — after all, 1.727 billion is still a very high figure in recent NYC history — the trend lines are all trending in the wrong direction. Andy Byford’s plan to rescue the subways becomes more important in this light.
But the news isn’t all bad, and in a roundabout way, we return to the Second Ave. Subway. As I mentioned, the 2017 numbers are the first reflecting the new service, and riders on the Upper East Side are enjoying the benefits. The three new stations along 2nd Ave. combined for over 20 million riders, and the Q’s shared station with the F at Lexington Ave.-63rd St. saw a 25 percent jump in station entries. With hospitals nearby, 72nd St. and 2nd Ave. is already the 40th busiest subway station in New York City.
Take a look at how ridership numbers across the Upper East Side compare year-over-year, and you’ll see the full impact of the 2nd Ave. Subway.
2nd Ave. Subway 2017 Daily Ridership
|Lexington - 63rd (F/Q)||16,988||20,893||+23%|
|68th St. - Hunter College (6)||35,068||24,456||-30.3%|
|72nd St. (Q)||28,145|
|77th St. (6)||36,103||27,584||-23.6%|
|86th St. (4/5/6)||64,793||45,882||-29.2%|
|86th St. (Q)||23,722|
|96th St. (6)||26,939||18,983||-29.5%|
|96th St. (Q)||17,150|
As promised, the Lexington Ave. lines are seeing significantly lighter passenger loads along the East Side while the 2nd Ave. Subway is introducing new riders to the system. A conservative estimate shows approximately 27,000 new riders per day entering the system due to the 2nd Ave. Subway with the potential for more depending upon particular ridership patterns. (For what it’s worth, the M15 buses on 2nd Ave. saw a decline of around 3.7% or 517,000 annual passengers as citywide bus ridership declined by around 5.6%.)
In the first year, the Second Ave. Subway seemed to deliver on its promise to ease overcrowding along the Lexington Ave. lines, and these numbers should serve as ammunition for project proponents as the MTA gears up to deliver Phase 2 to East Harlem. As a counterpoint to my optimism, Aaron Gordon at The Village Voice questioned the Second Ave. Subway in light of ridership figures, but I’m more concerned with the cost and construction timeline for Phase 2 than for its utility. It should be built for a variety of reasons and will bring with it big benefits to areas of Manhattan relatively isolated. (More on that later.)
For now, though, the subways are still crowded, but less so. That “less so” part should scare everyone thinking about the long-term successes and challenges facing New York City. The picture slowly coming into focus isn’t a pretty one if ridership declines aren’t reversed soon.