Monday morning dawned in New York City yesterday as it so often does these days: with a total MTA meltdown. The problem this time came about because of a year-long project to fix a stretch of tunnel under 4th Ave. about which the MTA forgot to tell riders and somehow messed up the GO. Thanks to a typo, the D, N and R were all running local and wooden plywood formed a surprising barrier on the express tracks. As complaints on social media piled up and no one knew what was happening, riders flocked to any other possible route — ferries, Ubers, whatever they could find.
Later in the day, the MTA determined that a typo caused the meltdown, and Aaron Gordon did a deep dive into the mess that was. As Gordon discussed, because the work order identified the wrong signal as the end point of the construction zone, D trains were routed onto the local tracks, and the entire 4th Ave. line south of Atlantic Ave. was thrown into disarray. Furthermore, since Transit had scheduled this work as a long-term change, the internal communications staff didn’t realize it required special word to passengers in the form of station posters and announcements. Thus, the powers-that-be at Transit simply didn’t know they needed to make an effort to bring word of these service changes to commuters during rush hour on a Monday morning.
The agency struck an apologetic tone. Sarah Meyer, Transit’s new-ish Chief Customer Officer, issued a lengthy statement about the issue (which notes how the blue wall actually improves service and eliminates the need for flagging). “We deeply apologize for our significant errors today and know that we need to do better,” Meyer (a long-time classmate of mine in elementary and high school) said. “We are working through our policies and procedures to ensure this does not happen again.”
But happen again it does time and time again. As Dave Colon detailed at Curbed (while linking to this post of mine on this very topic from 2011), the MTA constantly fails at communicating basic information about subway delays. As Colon noted, Transit’s twitter account had no update on the issue until 9:17 a.m., at least 40 minutes to an hour after initial reports started trickling in. No one anywhere knew what was happening, and this lag in getting information to the public is a near-daily problem these days.
Now, Monday’s delay was a particularly bad one, but this a long-winding way of getting to another point: Monday’s issue isn’t that rare and is illustrative of declining reliability of subway service and a main driver behind the alarming multi-year dip in ridership I charted last week. Following the release of the raw numbers, during the MTA Board meeting last week, agency executives presented a deep dive on ridership trends. What they unveiled wasn’t surprising: Subway ridership is on target for another two-percent dip this year, and the biggest declines in weekend ridership are from the hours of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., not coincidentally when service gets less frequent and more likely to be plagued by track work-related changes.
It’s hard to find good news in the MTA’s report. The only time ridership has steadily increased has been in the hours between 5 a.m. – 7 a.m., and while the morning rush is still above 2014 levels, by the end of this year, ridership in the 22-hour period from 7 a.m. – 5 a.m. will be at its lowest in six years. Overall, the biggest declines are in the Bronx and Queens, with these boroughs seeing subway ridership fall by 6 percent and 5 percent respectively this year.
Not coincidentally, again, the MTA notes that growth in the usage of for-hire vehicles — the Ubers, Lyfts and Vias of the world — increased markedly in 2017. Growth in FHV usage was 13 percent last year as 63 million more riders used for-hire vehicles in 2017 than in 2016. That’s a larger increase than from 2012-2016 combined, and when combined with the 199 million bike and ferry rides (and the corresponding 6 million rider increase last year), this increase is a one-for-one match with the 69 million rider decline in subway service.
So is Uber responsible for the MTA’s ridership dip? That is what MTA Chairman Joe Lhota seems to want the city to believe. As he said last week in response to a question to Dan Rivoli of The Daily News, “Some days, I drink Coke, and some days, I drink Pepsi.” It’s hard to read this as anything other than an attempt to blame personal choice and forces outside of the MTA for the decline in ridership. To me, though, this is both a gross misreading of the situation and an inverting of the cause and effect. The cause of the MTA’s ridership declines isn’t an increase in Uber use; rather, the effect of the MTA’s declining service reliability is an increase in the use of for-hire vehicles.
Notably, the MTA has charted steep declines in outer-borough routes (that is, travel between the boroughs rather than to Manhattan), and that can be explained by long and arduous trips that either require multiple transfers or multiple modes. With VC money still subsidizing for-hire vehicle fares, those New Yorkers who need to take these outer borough trips and can afford a taxi ride do so, particularly when subway service (and communication about that subway service) is a crap shoot. As one Uber rep said to The Wall Street Journal, “The best way to boost subway ridership is to improve service.”
These ridership declines are worrying trends. The spiral will continue to send those with means out of the subway system while New Yorkers who can’t afford alternate travel are left with an unreliable system that costs them time and money in delays and lost wages. The MTA should recognize that the cause is not Uber but rather the service, and Monday’s communications and travel meltdown was just another sign of the depths of the transit crisis.