Home New York City Transit Despite NYC economy, transit ridership continues steady decline

Despite NYC economy, transit ridership continues steady decline

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

July ridership numbers show an ongoing decline.

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.

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Asher Samuels October 3, 2018 - 12:48 am

I think that many of the MTA execs and employees would be much happier if those pesky riders would just go away.

MP October 3, 2018 - 4:40 am

It’s all Uber/Lyft/Juno. And it’s only going to accelerate from here. Best case is that subway tunnels are still useful for Uber-like shuttles in 2040. More likely case is that only a handful of express lines stay open and the rest is filled in.

Pat October 3, 2018 - 12:55 pm

And where exactly are all these millions of Ubers going to go? Can we triple-deck every street in Manhattan?

anon_coward October 3, 2018 - 8:31 am

It’s not in the average numbers, but you can see it if you take the train daily. The ridership levels vary A LOT day to day at the same times on some trains. People are working remotely.

MTA has spent all this money on new trains in Manhattan, but nothing for most of us who live outside Manhattan. And a lot of people have the option to work at home multiple times a week. My internet at home is faster than the internet in my old employer

AndrewJC October 3, 2018 - 5:25 pm

MTA has spent all this money on new trains in Manhattan, but nothing for most of us who live outside Manhattan.

The only line that runs in Manhattan only, never venturing into any other borough, is the 42nd Street shuttle. It runs R62A’s built in the mid-1980’s.

The newest subway cars are the R179’s on the J/Z, which mostly runs in Brooklyn and Queens and barely touches Manhattan. The next-newest subway cars are the R188’s on the 7, which mostly runs in Queens and also barely touches Manhattan.

All of the subway cars built in the past 20 years serve boroughs other than Manhattan.

anon_coward October 3, 2018 - 8:44 pm

$15 BILLION or so on 7 train and SAS to get more money from higher property taxes and the Hudson Yards. Meanwhile many places in Queens and Brooklyn you have to take a bus to the subway or drive. And still no plans for a line that bypasses Manhattan to go between Queens/Brooklyn/Bronx.

Alon Levy October 4, 2018 - 4:21 pm

Where are you getting $15 billion from?

anon_cowards October 5, 2018 - 4:02 pm

Both of those projects were in the $15 to $20 Billion range combined

Alon Levy October 5, 2018 - 6:05 pm

No, they were not. The 7 extension was $2.1 billion and SAS Phase 1 was $4.7 billion.

matthew October 6, 2018 - 1:41 pm

Maybe you are thinking of the Eastside Access, and the LIRR Mainline expansion programs which will cost billions when complete and primarily benefited Long Islanders. I think the current price tag for Eastside Access alone is upto $11-12 billion.

Klaus K. October 3, 2018 - 11:27 am

I firmly believe that if they improve service to something like what we had between 1995-2005, then the riders will come. Dollar for dollar, efficient, fast, subway service is a better investment than bike lanes or de Blasio’s ferries or the BQX gift to waterfront real estate interests. It would really help if the city and state could work together rather than be at odds.

Daniel Miller October 3, 2018 - 1:41 pm

Bike lanes are extraordinarily cheap compared to subways; they don’t belong in the same category as ferries or the BQX.

sonicboy678 October 3, 2018 - 2:01 pm

At least the ferries are relatively straightforward to implement, especially since ferries take advantage of nature’s roads (and man-made extensions of such that were developed well before many of us got here). Without some significant changes, that BQX will be little more than a pipe dream.

Klaus K. October 3, 2018 - 4:14 pm

I agree that bike lanes are cheap when they are just lines painted on the asphalt road, but increasingly, bike lanes in NYC involve a lot more than painted lines. They involve redesigning the road, building a curb, moving parking spaces, etc. But bike lanes are not the only infrastructure the city is buying for our biketopia. The city installs special traffic lights for bike lanes that have a 10-second delay in turning green for motorists so that the bikes can get a head start making turns. Those special traffic lights apparently cost $1000 a pop. As with so many things, the devil is in the details, and there are a lot costs that go unmentioned.

Stephen October 6, 2018 - 11:12 am

I don’t know if you are confusing Leading Pedestrian Interval Signals with the 10-second delays you mention.

The LPI signals give pedestrians the head start to cross a street before the traffic signal turns green for the motorists. They are at intersections that are not on bike lanes, although they very well could be there as well.

AndrewJC October 7, 2018 - 11:03 pm

And they are only necessary because so many motorists refuse to watch for and yield to pedestrians when turning (as the law requires).

anon_coward October 3, 2018 - 8:45 pm

the bike lanes on queens blvd are empty most of the time

Matthew October 4, 2018 - 10:24 am

The parked cars on Queens Blvd are also empty most of the time. What is your point?

anon_coward October 4, 2018 - 12:45 pm

the cars moving in the travel lanes outnumber the number of bikes at least 100 to 1 at any given time

Cain McDougal October 7, 2018 - 10:57 pm

Some bike lanes were implemented to help calm traffic.

smotri October 3, 2018 - 1:32 pm

The main reason I take the subway is to go to and from work. Other than that, I avoid it as much as possible for these reasons: (1) delays, (2) weekend/late night work disrupting my travel plans, (3) the decrepit and filthy stations, (4) the indifference of the MTA workers and (5)the endless announcements of little help and often unintelligible. I was going to add this: the homeless people camped out in some stations, but this is a problem of our greater society, not really of the MTA. One day I will leave New York and in part it will be because of the increasing difficulty in getting around the city.

anon_coward October 4, 2018 - 7:13 am

6) Unless you’re going to Manhattan from one of the outer boroughs, be prepared to spend 2-3 hours going one way. Even with the weekend traffic it’s still faster to take the Belt or the BQE to Brooklyn. And a lot cheaper than the LIRR too.

John October 3, 2018 - 5:10 pm

I was a huge fan of the subway when I first moved here many years ago. I had to take it everywhere for my job and was taking 10-12 rides a day. Been to almost every stop in the system and know it like the back of my hand. I’m a cartography buff and an amateur artist – I made my very own hand drawn wall-sized subway map and it hangs in my apartment to this day. It’s beautiful.

Today – I am ashamed of the subway system. I bike to work whenever I can (9 miles one way), and use the train maybe twice a week for commuting. I spend all my weekends within my borough because the weekend work is so invasive that traveling on the train is no bueno. Buses aren’t much better. I have to say that if I’m not on my bike and it’s late at night, I’m taking a Lyft. The convenience of ordering a car to your door whenever you need it really has changed the way we get around. We’re not going back now.

The only way the MTA can capture more ridership is by providing reliable and timely service on all of their lines every day of the week, including weekends. They also need to expand service in areas outside of Manhattan’s CBD – this isn’t the 1960s anymore. I don’t have much faith that any of this will happen considering the cronyism and graft that is NYS and NYC. We will all lose because of it unfortunately.

sonicboy678 October 3, 2018 - 10:38 pm

With the amount of work needed, we would basically need the entire city to go without subway service for a good number of weeks/months in order to get the most critical repairs and replacements done. Also, in order to perform maintenance, we would end up seeing closures, albeit not quite as frequently under more optimal conditions.

Stephen Bauman October 3, 2018 - 7:40 pm

The chart showing weekend and weekday ridership should be pushed back to about 2002. You’re assuming that the upward trend in subway ridership tracked job growth. What if the growth in subway patronage was during off peak hours and weekends? Then the ridership decline in an age of increasing employment would be a surprise only to the MTA’s strategic planners.

Alon Levy October 4, 2018 - 4:25 pm

Peak ridership into Manhattan is lower today than in 1989 if I remember correctly. The increase since then has been entirely off-peak.

However, the transit mode share rose in the 1990s and 2000s, so it wasn’t all about non-work trips. There has been a shift in working hours away from the peak, e.g. lawyers work 10-8 and East Coast techies seem to routinely show up to work at noon.

J Adlai October 11, 2018 - 10:50 pm

These posts by Stephen and Alon point to what I really think the future of subway ridership is going to be.

Most of the growth in subway ridership was outside the peak hours. Since road congestion is often lower during these times, it’s been an ideal target for ride hailing services to siphon off riders.

But of course, for all of the touting of Uber and Lyft, taxis have been in existence for decades. What’s different now is the shared options they provide, which are far more price competitive with the Subway. If the Subway costs $2.75, but for only another $3.00 I can order a door to door ride that will be faster, far more convenient and reliable, the choice to take the subway becomes that much harder.

How can NYCT stem the tide? They need to provide service that is more convenient during these off hours periods. Just because fewer people are riding on weekends doesn’t mean that they like waiting for 10-15 minutes (or more!) for a train because NYCT insists on running nothing but full length consists on their lines. Just because work needs to be done doesn’t mean that customers want to back track to the nearest express station, or endure a brutally slow shuttle bus operation. And just because fare integration between buses and subways happened years ago and spurred big ridership growth doesn’t mean that it isn’t time to see how else other modes can be integrated into the Subway’s fare structure. But does NYCT have any real strategy to tackle any of these issues? No.

So, I fully expect that NYCT will go back to what they have done in the past: primarily serving the CBD with high frequency service that is faster than ground level traffic during those time periods. That will mean emptier trains during weekends, middays and nights, in much the same way I remember it used to be in the 90s.

Muni October 21, 2018 - 8:57 am

Well said; 5+ years ago, the trains came far more often on the weekend, and pretty much anyone could get a seat on any line. Weekend service has clearly been strongly reduced. But I’m not sure shorter trains on the weekend would meaningfully lower the costs. My hunch is that the manpower needed to operate the trains (most obviously the drivers) is the majority of the cost, and this doesn’t get cut in half when the train-lengths do. The amount of extra electricity and maintenance is probably not a huge deal (though I’d be curious to see the cost breakdown).

BruceNY October 4, 2018 - 12:26 pm

I just hope Andy Byford is given a chance, and the funding, to implement some improvements, before he becomes discouraged by the politcal dysfunction that is hampering any serious effort to fix things and quits.

smotri October 5, 2018 - 8:55 am

All mass transportation in the tri-state area is subject to the whims of the entrenched political systems in place. Their structure does not really allow for any meaningful reform in the way things are run, be it the MTA, an essentially downstate operation, with Albany running the show (very poorly), be it with something like PATH and the airports and some bridges, with the Port Authority answerable to no one, it seems, be it with the various suburban transit lines subject to a seeming multitude of interests (I pity Garden State residents who need to use New Jersey transit), never truly reconciled and never really integrated fully into the overall transit network. Case in point: there is a renovation of LaGuardia airport going on right now, and one planned for JFK. Was any thought at all given to rational mass transit access to these two airports? No. Why do cities like Miami or Atlanta, with much lower taxes, I might add, have true trains to the planes? With New York City, though, the ‘greatest city in the world’, this however is impossible even though billions and billions of dollars are being sunk into these two airports (by the way, not even making either airport’s flight capacity any greater!). The whole approach to mass transit needs a top to bottom reform, but given all the vested interests – tolerated by an apathetic electorate, I might add – we simply remain stuck, stuck, stuck – or should it be ‘delayed, delayed, delayed’? Andy Byford can say all he wants about what needs to be done to reverse the downward slide of the subways and buses in New York City, but I don’t think the political structures will permit much, if anything really.

Michael549 October 14, 2018 - 12:32 pm

Given that the majority of the subway transit in NYC was completed in the 1940’s (and yes with consolidations, conversions and eliminations), and even with the stalled plans of the late 1960/70’s finally beginning to be realized in updated forms – the mold was set. Passenger traffic on airlines in the 1940’s BASICALLY DID NOT EXIST for the masses of people, besides needing lots of land.

Why, why do some folks continue to compare NYC’s transit with places like Miami or Atlanta which simply do not have transit systems with features that date from the 1880’s? Out transit systems basically originated from private companies that went bankrupt – why do some folks today think that what we have originated from some master plan. It did not!

Then among transit fans – bring up any idea to link the subway transit network to the airports. Amid the storm, bombast and debate there will be folks screaming at the tops of their lungs – THEY ARE DOING IT WRONG!!!

WHY? There are those who want to service the business traveler so the possible airport/subway connection has to be better oriented toward the downtown and midtown business district plus speedy travel times. Then there are who folks who feel that a possible airport/subway connection has to be more regional to help the plenty of vacation or non-business travelers get both to and from the airport easier. Then there are those folks who are actually putting up the money who want to make sure their interests are served, and airport provided funding does not get filtered into general subway spending. Plus there are NIMBY concerns (past and present), funding competition, and a whole host of other related issues.

Asking “why can’t there …” means learning and understanding history and policy issues that came before.

Ed October 8, 2018 - 10:32 pm

I’m not sure this is that difficult. First, the city economy is really not growing, but whatever, even if it is you certainly can’t rely on the subway to get to work!

Bill Wagner October 9, 2018 - 8:14 am

Pedistrians need to herd the walk / do ‘t walk signals to speed traffic and enhsnce safety. Bicycles are required to follow auto traffic grrem and red lights. Some intersections with bike lanes have seoerate bije kane traffic signals. Mist bikers can’t be bothered.

John October 11, 2018 - 2:43 pm

The last thing we should be doing is considering how pedestrians and cyclists should be acquiescing to vehicular traffic in this city. If anything, we need to make it less convenient for driving and parking around here. We should expand pedestrian plazas, protected bike lanes, and laws should be in the interests of pedestrians and cyclists before cars. You shouldn’t be getting $1000 in tickets for running a red light on a bicycle when a bus driver gets a 30-day job suspension for sideswiping and murdering someone on a bike. The attitude that “pedestrians need to heed the walk/don’t walk signals to speed traffic” is quite possibly the worst take I’ve seen on this site.

Blue October 11, 2018 - 10:01 am

What if New York is declining in population?

Isn’t the simple answer to rents going down and subway ridership going down is there’s just fewer people now than there was a year ago?

Larry Littlefield October 11, 2018 - 10:44 am

If the population is going down, it is because rents (and taxes) are going up even as public services deteriorate, and young workers have tired of being used as cash cows to benefit entrenched interests. They are fleeing NYC for other places.

If rents fell significantly, more people would show up.

Blue October 12, 2018 - 11:20 am

NYC’s recent population boom is due to it being a destination city for international immigrants and an influx of millennials in their 20s choosing to live in the world’s most dynamic city.

But millennials are now in their 30s and that’s the time people couple up, have kids, and decide they need a house not a tiny apartment.

Additionally, for the last 5 years, more US citizen have left NYC than moved to it. But the city kept growing because the difference was made up by international immigrants moving to NYC. But if national politics are preventing immigration to New York then you’d have fewer people.

My theory is you have a combined effect. Mid-life millennials are moving out of NYC at accelerated rates as they seek to have children and put down roots. And international immigration is declining due to a hostile federal government.

I think New York’s population peaked in late 2017 and is at the very beginning of a decline.

Larry Littlefield October 15, 2018 - 9:20 am

The population may decline because landlords and homeowners try to charge more rent that people can afford, or the market will bear. You have had periods of significant population decrease after bubble bursts in San Francisco, for example.

In the long run, however, if NYC becomes affordable again, people will move in.

Lower housing costs may reduce average household size, because people will not longer have to live four to a room. But if the city’s schools don’t drive everyone out, people having children may fill in what fewer adults take out.

smotri October 12, 2018 - 8:59 am

And what do I hear this morning on the radio? The NY State comptroller says revenues are falling, congestion pricing will not make up the difference, and thus service cuts should be implemented. I only need to take the subways on a weekday basis for the next few months and after that I will not even buy a metrocard. Enough of this already.

Larry Littlefield October 15, 2018 - 9:21 am

Sounds like you timed it right. Florida?

smotri October 16, 2018 - 3:05 pm

Yes. However, Florida will one day be underwater, which is inconvenient, to say the least.

LLQBTT October 22, 2018 - 12:33 pm

The other day, during a L train weekend outage, I had to run an errand along the L route. Had the L run, this would have been a no-brainer L trip. Now, the reason that I did not take the L shuttle bus is that they get bogged down in traffic, especially on Wyckoff, and they can be uncomfortably overcrowded to boot. As the alternate, the M served as a substitute in 1 direction. However, on the way back, another stop was made, and I was looking to take a local bus back. I’m was tired now, the local bus stop was near by, and it was going to put me much closer to my destination. I rarely take a local bus without first checking Bus Time, and, as it turns out, the next bus was 20 something stops away! And, there were 2 more buses within 4 stops of the lead bus. There could be countless reasons for this, of course, but ultimately, as a fare paying customer, I don’t care what any of them are. I opted for a Uber share instead as I could afford the extra $1.38 over the bus fare. So, can there be any wonder why bus ridership is on a steady decline?


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