Generally, in recent New York City history, as the city’s economy grows and employment increases, transit ridership does as well. On a basic and obvious level, it makes sense. After all, people need to get to work, and if more people are working, more people are going to be using the subways and buses to get to their jobs. And yet, this time around, something funny is happening: As the city’s economy continues to add jobs, transit ridership has continued to plunge.
This story began years ago as ridership started to slip, and I looked into the numbers over the summer. When the agency released its board materials for last week’s meeting, the picture remained negative. Average weekday subway ridership in July 2018 was nearly 2 percent lower than in July 2017, and the MTA noted that this dip was a steeper decline than the one during the second quarter of this year. Weekend ridership has declined by over 5 percent. Take a look at the graph of the 12-month rolling averages. Weekend totals include both Saturday and Sunday.
The averages aren’t the only numbers showing an alarming dip. Year-to-date ridership is 0.5 percent below 2017’s pace even as total NYC employment has inched up by nearly two percent over the same period in 2017. Where is everyone going? Or better yet, how are they getting to work?
In the Board materials, the MTA doesn’t speculate as to the lost riders. The agency notes that bus ridership is lower due to fewer student rides, but student rides make up a small fraction of trips especially during the summer months. That’s an unsatisfying answer. Meanwhile, we’ve already seen the MTA attempt to explain the ridership decline with less than impressive results. The agency blamed for-hire vehicles for the declining ridership rather than the poor service, and it’s not clear the agency has a plan to stanch the bleeding or cares much about it.
And that brings me to the next question: Should we care? The answer is a nuanced one. On the one hand, the declining ridership in excess of MTA projections means the agency will miss its fare-based revenue projections, but the miss totals only around $3.1 million. The year-end total will be somewhere around $5.5-$6 million, a piddling amount for an agency with a $13 billion budget but still an amount that could lead to service cuts. Meanwhile, if a modern economy allows potential commuters to work remotely, perhaps we shouldn’t expect a ridership increase commensurate with employment numbers.
But the nagging feeling I have, based on that July report on ridership mode shifts and the general worsening subway service, is that subway and bus ridership numbers are declining because the MTA can’t provide regularly reliable and fast service. Thus, potential transit riders are looking at other modes for travel, and the increase in usage of FHVs (along with added congestion) will increase because the MTA’s service doesn’t provide the reliability New Yorkers need.
If Transit is worried about this ridership decline, the executives aren’t showing it. Andy Byford’s Fast Forward remains a plan without a funding stream rather than an ongoing concern, and agency officials haven’t spoken of the need to combat the decline or a fear that the bottom could fall out. I believe stopping this dip should be a primary concern if NYC is stay on a pace of sustainability with fewer car trips and more transit usage. This slow-motion death spiral will choke the city.