Home New York City Transit Gov. Cuomo announces the end of overnight subway service for now as cleanliness, homelessness concerns emerge

Gov. Cuomo announces the end of overnight subway service for now as cleanliness, homelessness concerns emerge

by Benjamin Kabak

Gov. Andrew Cuomo ponders what it means to “disinfect” the subways during his Thursday briefing.

For the first time its in 116-year history, the New York City subways will no longer have planned 24/7 service as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his MTA announced on Thursday that, beginning next Wednesday, trains will not run between 1 a.m. – 5 a.m. Overnight subway service — a New York City hallmark — will be suspended for the foreseeable future, and the MTA will continue to offer bus service or subsidize for-hire vehicle use for the 11,000 essential employees who now find themselves without late-night train service.

Why this is happening now and how the MTA arrived at this historic outcome isn’t clear. The decision to cut overnight service, made over the course of around 24 hours and without consultation or approval of the neutered MTA Board, arrives amidst an increase focus on homeless New Yorkers taking up residence in the subway and increased attention on the perceived need to clean subway surfaces to combat the threat of COVID-19. Yet, for a city used to relying on the subways to get around at any time of day, the official justifications for the move are frustratingly murky, and it’s not clear how the MTA will guarantee sufficient replacement service or when the agency will restore the overnight subways, a hallmark of the city’s non-stop economy.

The governor first announced the shutdown during his daily coronavirus press conference on Thursday. (The meandering transcript is available here.) The announcement came a day after the governor, waving around a tabloid story that displayed a homeless New Yorker covered in his own excrement and flashing an MTA operator the peace sign, challenged the MTA to improve cleanliness, and two days after Mayor Bill de Blasio asked the MTA to shutter 41 terminal stations overnight to allow the city to assist with homeless outreach (and removal). In a sense, it was the denouement of a fight that’s been raging for days, months and years. The city has failed to provide adequate and safe shelter for some homeless New Yorkers who are in desperate need of social services and, in many cases, psychological help, and those homeless New Yorkers have often fled to the subways. This was wrongly tolerated to a degree during good times but became a public health crisis as the coronavirus pandemic raged around us.

Essential workers were being forced to ride trains with semi-permanent homeless residents while the mayor refused to accept responsibility for the problem and the governor challenged the MTA to come up with a solution. As Julianne Cuba wrote on Streetsblog NYC yesterday, the crisis is a housing problem and not a transit problem, but still, the mayor and governor both seemed to expect a transit agency to address a societal problem it isn’t, by its nature, capable of addressing.

Is this about homeless? Cleanliness? When asked that question by NY1’s Pat Kiernan on Friday morning, MTA Chair Pat Foye first said, “No, this is about disinfecting trains.” But he immediately continued speaking at length about the issues the mayor raised. Foye continued:

“Obviously the homeless has become a significant issue and as the governor noted yesterday, there’s been rapid deterioration especially in the nighttime period on the subways. Yesterday Mayor de Blasio joined by Zoom, the governor in making and affirming and supporting this decision, but the City also committed a robust and sustainable NYPD presence to continue to help with the closing of the subway system from 1am to 5am, but also to continue offering services to the homeless and getting them shelters. The NYPD has really stepped up its activities in the last week and number of weeks, and that level of commitment is really critical to this to this effort and us being able to assure our employees, current riders and future riders that the system has been disinfected on a regular basis, every subway car, every bus, every station.

Either way, as Clayton Guse of The Daily News summarized on Twitter, “The governor is using disinfecting/cleaning as air cover for the wholesale removal of homeless people from the system.”

Gov, Andrew Cuomo announces the temporary end of overnight subway service as Interim NYC Transit President Sarah Feinberg and MTA Chair Pat Foye look on. (Photo: Darren McGee – Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

So what exactly is happening? According to the MTA’s numbers, only around 11,000 riders have been using the subway between 1 a.m. and 5 p.m., and most of those — 5,692, to be exact — have been using the subways between 4 and 5 a.m. So the MTA is going to kick everyone off trains for four hours supposedly to “disinfect” every car every day. “This is an unprecedented time and that calls for unprecedented action to protect the safety, security and health of our system for customers and employees. This closure will enable us to more aggressively and efficiently disinfect and clean our trains and buses than we have ever done before and do it every single day,” MTA Chair Pat Foye said in a statement.

How — or if — the MTA will clean over 6400 subway cars every night in the span of four hours remains to be seen, but all 472 subway stations will close. According to the MTA, the city via the NYPD will be responsible for enforcing this closure. Does this mean homeless subway riders will be removed, forcibly or otherwise, from the subway system at 1 a.m. only to return at 5 a.m.? It’s not clear yet, but unless homeless riders are going to be detained, it seems likely. It’s also not clear how all subway stations will close without a massive amount of NYPD manpower as many do not have gates that lock and a good number no longer even have station agent booths eying entrances. The MTA has yet to share details regarding enforcement, but that’s not all we do not know.

We don’t know what the MTA’s new overnight “Essential Connector” service will be. We know that buses will still run 24/7, and an MTA spokesperson tells me that the agency will add bus service to respond to demand if certain routes are too popular for social distancing to be maintained. We know that essential workers with sufficient proof will be allowed two for-hire vehicle rides per night, but we don’t know how those will be ordered or how disinfectant standards will be maintained. We also don’t know how the MTA plans to disinfect its entire fleet every night. On NY1 on Friday morning, Foye stressed the bus service. The Essential Connector service, he said, “is going to be the full current bus schedule which will be supplemented as necessary. That’ll be the primary mode. These aren’t shuttle buses; this is regular bus service run by TWU members and other union members who are employees of the MTA, in this case New York City Transit. That will be the primary mode of moving between ten and eleven thousand passengers in the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. period. That’ll be supplemented as necessary by livery cabs, by taxis, and by for-hire vehicles. But the primary method of moving those customers, between ten and eleven thousand, will be the bus service which will supplement as necessary and supplemented secondarily by livery cars, for-hire vehicles and taxis.”

By all accounts, this is still a work in progress with details to be announced ahead of next week’s launch. Already, though, as Jose Martinez reports today in THE CITYM, essential workers who have to commute overnight feel left out of the planning process and are scrambling for the alternatives they may have. It’s a bad situation all around.

But is it a necessary one? That’s the question looming over this, and after speaking with a few folks both within the MTA and outside of the agency, it’s not clear that the answer is yes. From a virology perspective, evidence is scant on surface transmission of COVID-19. The viral load doesn’t seem sufficient for transmission via subway pole in the normal course of a day, and disinfecting is only effective until the next person touches the surface. A rolling approach that maintains service would likely be sufficient.

Most subway lines are operating on 20-minute overnight headways so train service is infrequent. At 1 a.m., for instance, the Q has four trains running to 96th and four heading to Coney Island. The MTA could disinfect other train sets earlier in the evening, take the Coney Island-bound trains out of service at Stillwell Ave., replace them in service with disinfected cars, and maintain 20-minute overnight headways for a fraction of the cost of shutting down the subways. This would alleviate all of the hassles and headaches late-night workers detail in Martinez’s article, but it wouldn’t address the concerns regarding homeless New Yorkers taking up semi-permanent residents underground. To that end, the city and state would actually have to address the myriad intertwined problems that lead to homeless New Yorkers taking up residence on the subway, and it’s much harder to address them during a crisis after failing to do so during the boom years.

The response from the advocacy community has been a mixed bag. Homeless advocates are not happy. In comments to Curbed New York, Craig Hughes of Safety Net Project said, “The Mayor and Governor continue to see homeless people as nuisances to be bounced from place to place, rather than full human beings who need housing. Rather than provide them with masks, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment, the MTA, Governor, and Mayor are opportunistically using the COVID crisis to move forward a long term goal of ridding the subways of people with no homes.”

Many transit organizations have called the governor’s decision “the right thing to do,” as the RPA did without offering must justification for that assessment. The Riders Alliance (of which I am a board member) struck a more forceful tone. “Even during a crisis, New York is and will be a 24/7 city,” Executive Director Betsy Plum said in a statement. “Governor Cuomo’s suspension of subway service must be strictly temporary while a longer-term solution is developed and implemented. And, in the meantime, the governor must ensure that riders have access to safe, reliable, and frequent replacement bus service.”

“Strictly temporary” is indeed the hope, but we don’t know when 24/7 subway service — a vital part of any recovery in New York City — will return. The MTA, in its release said, it “resume overnight service between the period of 1-5 a.m. when customer demand returns, and innovative and efficient disinfecting techniques have been successfully deployed systemwide.” This is a chicken/egg problem as customer demand won’t return if the service doesn’t exist, and in off-camera comments on Thursday, Interim NYCT President Sarah Feinberg said they expect the service suspension to last the duration of the pandemic. Again, it’s not clear what that means as Cuomo is likely to loosen some PAUSE restrictions in the coming weeks and months, but the World Health Organization likely won’t declare an end to the pandemic until well into 2021. Are we to go without 24/7 subway service for that long? Can the city survive without it?

State Senator Brad Hoylman doesn’t think so, and to that end, he announced that he will introduce legislation requiring overnight subway service to return “after any declared end to the pandemic.” But again, that’s ambiguous timing. Who gets to determine the end of the pandemic? Why can’t overnight subway service return before the end of the pandemic as life in New York returns to normal? Who can guarantee that the state and the MTA won’t use this period as a trial run to end overnight subway service entirely? These may be uncomfortable questions to ask amidst a pandemic, but transit is key to sustaining residents during the pandemic and will be a key part of New York City’s recovery. Uncertainty creates anxiety that undercuts the city’s future.

By now, I think you can see my skepticism toward this whole idea. Has late-night subway service become another pawn in the battle between the mayor and governor? I’ll let this tweet from MTA advisor Ken Lovett answer that question.

Meanwhile, on Thursday night, cops (but not social workers) were sending homeless New Yorkers out into the rain. The subways need to be clean; the subways need to be safe; the subways should not be a home of last resort for the down-and-out; and the subways should not be viewed as a de facto homeless shelter by the mayor of New York. But the subways need to run, and they need to run all night. Cutting overnight service isn’t a decision that should be mad rashly over the course of 24 hours, and it’s a move that should come with a clear alternate service plan and an end date. Without justification or an analysis of alternatives that can guarantee both disinfectant procedures and subway service, this move seems to be governing via headline rather than rigorous, justifiable policy. For New York to succeed, the subways and its political leaders need to be in concert, and right now, they’re not as the City That Never Sleeps grabs a new-found four hours of shuteye every night into the future.

You may also like


James S May 1, 2020 - 1:35 am

What’s to stop the homeless from riding the busses and also why is cleaning the busses apparently not an issue.

Jeremiah Clemente May 2, 2020 - 2:08 pm

What’s stopping the homeless from riding the buses is that it’s not easy to sleep for 8-10 hours on a bus since the driver will kick everyone off at the last stop and deal with a hell of a long layover.

Mister Sterling May 18, 2020 - 4:48 pm

Very true. But it seems for limited amounts of time, this is precisely what happens. The MTA even set up “warming buses” for the homeless during a cold spell two weeks ago.

Larry Penner May 1, 2020 - 2:17 am

Glad to hear that Governor Cuomo has called for the MTA to scrub clean all trains daily. I suggested this weeks ago. Everyone has known for decades that the subway, bus, commuter rail and ferries are a Petri dish for catching a cold, the flu or other communicable diseases. The rise of a growing homeless population, who ride our subways and live at stations have made matters worse. They clearly have little ability to maintain personal hygiene. The previous announcement by MTA Chairman Pat Foye in response to the threat of the corona virus growing was disappointing. His commitment to have transit workers deep clean the entire system using an “enhanced daily cleaning procedure,” or scrub strategy, including bleach and hospital grade disinfectant should have been the norm for years. The same is true for sanitizing “commonly touched surfaces” at stations including turnstiles, exit gates, platform floors, bathrooms, Metro Card vending machines and benches on a daily basis. Deep cleaning subway cars once every 72 hours during this crises was always insufficient. Between homeless on board and rush hour standing room only crowds, they need to be thoroughly cleaned on a 24 hour basis. The odds increase for spreading a communicable disease when you are trapped on a crowded bus or subway for long periods of time. Millions of New Yorkers ride the subway, bus or commuter rail. They should not have to wait once every three days for a complete cleaning of vehicles.

It should not have taken the potential spread of the corona virus for the MTA to properly clean equipment and stations. Safety and security of the riding public should always be the number one priority.

(Larry Penner — transportation advocate, historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).

Christo Codornices May 1, 2020 - 3:13 am

Well, it heartens me to see that someone such as this blogger who skews “progressive” – as in applauds barring streets to cars and giving away free transit to favored classes (I.e. the supposedly poor and the undocumented) when the transit system is obviously already underfunded – suddenly seems to understand how the pandemic is being used as camouflage for the powerful doing what they couldn’t in ordinary times. That’s how many of us feel. We wouldn’t say it to your faces – because you would immediately attempt to shame us as racist, right wing, backwards, whatever. But may you feel as much pain — and hopefully more so — as many of us do when decisions are made for us by a powerful, unyielding elite that “know better” because of “expertise” and supposed “science.” As a New Yorker by birth with an Ivy League education – not the sort from whom you would expect these comments – I hope you reap what your political advocacy has sown. Tenfold. No, a hundredfold.

VLM May 1, 2020 - 10:51 am

It’s a tell to ignore you entirely when you start ranting about “the undocumented,” but no one in transit advocacy you should take seriously, and certainly not anyone posting on this site or any of Ben’s post, have ever advocated for free transit. But you’re right! You are being racist, right wing and backwards. No one cares about your education or birth.

Mister Sterling May 18, 2020 - 4:50 pm

Just ignore the crazy person. You can tell they are crazy because they are the ones who are ranting and not wearing masks.

R May 1, 2020 - 9:21 am

WHO is going to do this cleaning? New employees all hired within a week? Current workers? Who have been doing what till now? Where will they get the tankloads of ~Lysol? Sam’s Club?

Mister Sterling May 18, 2020 - 4:50 pm

Non union contractors! We got the confirmation today!

Doctor Memory May 1, 2020 - 11:53 am

So to review:

– we’re cancelling overnight subway service for the first time ever, with no clear plan for how, say, HOSPITAL NIGHT SHIFT workers are supposed to get to work
– we’re going to spend an enormous amount of money to do entirely performative “disinfection” in order to combat a disease that spreads primarily through respiration
– and to do that, we’re going to force overnight commuters to SIT MORE CLOSELY TOGETHER in busses, taxis and dollar vans
– the homeless people displaced from the subway at night will return during the day and immediately touch all of the “disinfected” surfaces
– the MTA is still not and does not plan to require subway riders to wear facemasks
– there is no plan and no timeline for restoring overnight service
– there is no plan and no budget for housing the homeless people who have colonized the subway in fear of their lives because there is no way to socially distance in NY’s shelter system

This is a disaster. Having established the precedent that overnight service is dispensable, I do not expect to see it restored in our lifetimes: the MTA’s approaching fiscal apocalypse will ensure that nobody ever even suggests it. Meanwhile we can look forward to discovering where all the homeless folk decide to camp out at night; hopefully in front of Gracie Mansion.

smotri May 2, 2020 - 9:25 am

I was going to write a comment, but you covered all my points.

Mister Sterling May 18, 2020 - 4:51 pm

That sums it up. Also – we might never see 24/7 service return. We have to accept that possibility.

Peter May 1, 2020 - 1:07 pm

“governing via headline”
NAILED IT, you freaking NAILED It! you perfectly expressed exactly how I feel, you are a talented writer.

SEAN May 3, 2020 - 12:01 pm

“Who can guarantee that the state and the MTA won’t use this period as a trial run to end overnight subway service entirely?”

As I started reading this that was my first thought, find a way to cut service & make it appear it was both a humanitarian measure as well as a means to fight the pandemic. Although the second part maybe true, the first part certainly is not as the city needs to do far more for the homeless than they have been doing for decades.

RichardB May 4, 2020 - 8:28 am

Unless I misunderstood the night travel statistics indicate somewhere between 11000 and 12000 per night. If correct that is incredibly low and arguably supports cancellation due to the running costs per rider as cheaper alternatives could be provided. I am really surprised if overnight ridership is as low as that as London which offers a limited overnight service on some Underground lines on Friday and Saturday nights only, has had a massive response much to TfLs surprise To be fair frequency between the hours of 01:00 to 05:00 is normally every ten minutes although the central part of the Northern line offers 8 trains per hour during this period, All stations are manned throughout the night as well. I don’t know how that compares with New York but if we can get good night time patronage two nights a week I would have assumed New York would be similar if not better as you had 24/7 working.

One of the advantages of no night service Though is that a lot of routine maintenance is undertaken during those hours of shutdown.

Mister Sterling May 18, 2020 - 4:52 pm

I fear we are Boston now. No night subways.

Jon E. May 4, 2020 - 2:20 pm

Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful analysis.

One thing I’m curious about, though, is your contention that 24/7 subway service is “a vital part of any recovery in New York City.” That may be true, but it’s not at all obvious to me that it is, so I’d love to hear more about why you feel that way. This isn’t your main point, obviously, but I am nonetheless curious what your thinking was behind stating as such. Specifically, two thoughts come to mind that may cut against that view.

First, there are few major cities that operate 24/7 subway systems. (For example, none of the Hong Kong, London, Paris or Tokyo subway systems run 24/7.) What makes New York City uniquely different from those cities to necessitate overnight subway service?

Second, it strikes me that one of the biggest reason we’ve run subways 24/7 is that we’ve always run subways 24/7, and while the pandemic has imposed horrific carnage on our city (both in terms of the sheer lives lost and also in terms of how it’s pulled the economic carpet out from under so many people), I think we have to approach post-pandemic rebuilding in a way that works towards the city we want to have, not necessarily towards the city we had. (Indeed, crisis often presents the only opportunity where sacred cows can be sacrificed.) For example, while I’m not particularly optimistic about this with our current mayor, I hope that this gives us a chance to reclaim public space currently reserved only for cars and vehicles. Similarly, it’s not hard to see how cutting service for 4 hours each night could improve service during the other 20 hours–cleaner subway cars and subway stations, better track maintenance, more efficient construction projects, (potential?) cost savings by not running mostly empty trains, and (above-ground) a more efficiently designed inter-borough bus system to service commuters that otherwise would have been riding the subway.

I recognize that the second point is tinged with a bit of naivete. Our political leaders are reactive in nature and don’t appear particularly interested in addressing core problems (e.g., attempting to fix the homelessness problem through the transit agency). But I’ve often accused that same leadership for being too quick to defend the status quo (e.g., on prioritizing the car over the cyclist, pedestrian, or bus rider), and before defending the status quo (i.e., protecting 24/7 subway service) here, I’d love to understand what about 24/7 subway service makes it so essential.

John May 4, 2020 - 3:49 pm

Saw the story posted over at Subchat Monday from the Daily News that the MTA is going to try out portable ultraviolet cleaners inside out of service subway cars to kill COVID-19 and other viruses.

The system sounds similar to what the city put into the R-11 subway cars back in 1949 to kill viruses, but took out because it was eventually deemed to be too strong, and might be affecting passengers. But the Daily News story goes on to quote David Brenner, director of Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research, as saying his team is also working on a technology called “far UV-C” that could kill COVID-19 without harming people.

“If his lab at Columbia figures out the technology, it could be used to disinfect subways and buses while riders are already aboard,” the story says. If they can get it working in time, it needs to be incorporated into the upcoming R-211 and R-262 subway car lighting systems, and it’s a pretty good bet the major airlines, along with Amtrak and most bus companies, will also be looking at installing UV lighting as a way to try and assure customers it’s safe to come back to their services.

SEAN May 4, 2020 - 8:44 pm

That UV light idea is quite interesting & maybe just the game changer we need, well at least on transportation matters anyway. I wonder if the same concept could be adapted for use in malls, stores & restaurants as well without being intrusive.

RichardB May 11, 2020 - 4:47 pm

Whether UV sanitation is a runner or not it still does not remove the dirt and detritus. It may merely make it less toxic. New York has to grapple with a need to clean both trains and stations on a regular daily basis. UV sanitation could and possibly should be part of the answer but not on its own.

eddie spaghetti May 8, 2020 - 5:37 pm

What ho Nigel, that’s the over night numbers now during the pandemic.

SpendmorWastemore May 11, 2020 - 5:30 pm

Not mentioned above that I could see, is that the trains will continue running overnight. Much like during Cuomo’s snow shutdown, the trains will actually run, but as ghost trains you can’t board.

Mister Sterling May 18, 2020 - 4:53 pm

The ugly, bald British fellow quit at the right time.


Leave a Comment