Home View from Underground How the vaccine creates a politically expedient way to end the overnight subway closures

How the vaccine creates a politically expedient way to end the overnight subway closures

by Benjamin Kabak

Trains keep running every night, but passengers aren’t allowed on the subway. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Every few weeks, the absurdity of the MTA’s overnight subway closure is thrust into the spotlight. Sometimes, a tweet describing how the trains are still running even though riders aren’t allowed on board goes viral. Sometimes, MTA executives draw headlines when they admit to state representatives that the agency is not in fact saving any money by denying passengers subway rides from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. each night.

That’s what happened last week during an Albany hearing on the very precarious state of the MTA’s budget. When grilled by Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Assembly representative who has co-sponsored a bill that would mandate restoration of 24/7 passenger service, MTA CFO Bob Foran acknowledged that the MTA is not saving any money. “That was not done as a cost saving effort,” Foran said. “We are still running trains. They are to get our workforce back and forth.”

This is of course not a surprise to those in the know. It was an open secret for months that the MTA is still running its regularly scheduled overnight service but without passengers, and it was an open secret for months that the overnight denial of service isn’t a cost-saving measure. While the MTA can point to some minimal productivity gains that could have been achieved with FastTrack-esque shutdowns, the agency never intended to use the overnight closures to save money or increase capital work. The system is simply too vast with too many projects that were planned too long ago for a short four-window to do much for productivity.

Rather, the shutdowns were about implementing a legal mechanism to permit the MTA to remove unsheltered New Yorkers from the subway system while bolstering a necessary cleaning regiment that could have continued while essential workers were permitted access to the subway overnight. That trains are still running on a normal overnight schedule gives that game away, and headways are long enough at night that the MTA could take yard most trains at the end of their runs if they truly had to clean them with no passengers on board. The incremental personnel costs wouldn’t be out of line with the costs the MTA incurs running empty trains, and essential workers would have normal commutes rather than the lengthy trips I wrote about in August.

This is neither here nor there right now. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, through MTA leadership, has made clear that 24/7 passenger service will not return to the subways until the pandemic is over, a philosophy that incorrectly views overnight service as more beneficial to leisure, rather than essential, travel. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As the vaccine effort ramps up, Cuomo and the MTA have a very easy way to gracefully usher in the return of passengers to the subways on a 24/7 by tying it to access to vaccination hubs.

This is, of course, not a novel idea. In fact, a group of City Council representatives penned a letter to the MTA last week saying as much. “Not only has the suspension of late-night service and frequency reduction caused a great strain on the commutes of essential workers who every day have been putting their lives on the line, but the subway is now going to play an important role in bringing the City through to the other side of this pandemic crisis,” the letter notes. “With the creation of 24 hour vaccine hubs and, hopefully, accelerated supply from the new Biden Administration, New York City is working hard to ramp up its vaccine roll out. If these Vaccine hubs are going to be operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the city will need its public transportation infrastructure to be operating at the same time and capacity…It is of the utmost important to address the limited subway service immediately and restore 24-hour service.”

The political opening is there for the governor, but it’s not quite as easy as removing the chains blocking the stations at night. It requires some careful public messaging that explains how the MTA will keep cleaning and why the risk of viral transmission on transit remains low, two approaches few leaders in American government have taken throughout the pandemic. In a recent internal survey, the MTA found out that over 75% of current customers believe cleaning and disinfecting efforts make them “feel safe” when using transit. The same percentage has noticed that trains are cleaner since the overnight shutdowns began in May, and 55% of lapsed riders say cleanliness of trains is very important to them as and when they return to the subways.

Even though the virus is largely airborne and surface transmission is rare, keeping the trains clean is important for maintaining public trust in transit. Thus, if the MTA restores overnight service prior to the nebulous end of the pandemic, the agency must continue to stress that cleaning continues, as it does during the day, even if surface cleaning is more about perception than actual risk.

This of course puts the MTA in between a rock and a hard place. While the CDC has told the MTA to continue to disinfect surfaces while combating aerosol-based transmission, the MTA will have to keep spending a lot of money on surface cleaning to insure adequate faith in the system. And the issue of homelessness looms large. The MTA is not a housing agency nor are agency staffers experts in housing policy, but by denying passengers access to the trains overnight, the MTA has temporarily solved the problem of people remaining in the way on trains that need to be cleaned. Restoring 24/7 passenger service will force the MTA to reconsider this approach to removing homeless New Yorkers from the trains.

I don’t have a good answer here; it’s ultimately up to the city and state to house their unsheltered residents. But it shouldn’t be an excuse to deny essential workers a fast ride home or a city itching to escape quarantine access to 24/7 vaccine hubs. Allowing passengers on the trains overnight shouldn’t wait until the end of the pandemic when nightlife returns and things are moving back to normal. Once the vaccine supply is in place, Gov. Cuomo should allow passengers back on the subway overnight as a recognition of the way people need to travel and a symbol of a city on the rebound.

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20 comments

Curious February 1, 2021 - 8:25 am

This reminds me of the post before last about lack of seating at Moynihan Train Hall. Seems there is a common thread of “this is why we can’t have nice things” due to the homeless problem.

It would be great to ramp up MTA officer enforcement and restore 24-hour service, but barring that it would seem that shutting the trains down for 4 hours remains a sensible trade-off to avoid them turning into Homeless Hotels.

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Doctor Memory February 1, 2021 - 10:25 am

Seriously? It’s a “sensible” trade-off to shut down 24 hour subway service and screw over everyone who works third shift in a 24-hour city and literally kill homeless people because the alternative is that someone might see evidence of the fact that our homeless shelters are COVID deathtraps?

I think we differ strongly on notions of sense and sensibility. I don’t love walking into a car with a bunch of sleeping homeless ppl either (and I live at the end of the A train, so it’s a regular occurrence) but we’re paying a huge cost in terms of money and human lives in return for what: better asthetics?

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Curious February 1, 2021 - 2:49 pm

First: the extent that this is a 24-hour city is greatly diminished due to the 10pm bar/restaurant curfew. The shutdown still affects many people of course, but let’s be aware that the 4-hour shutdown cost is much less than it would have been in 2019.

Second: Characterizing the presence of the homeless on the train as a mere “aesthetics” issue is like saying the Titanic had a “seaworthiness” issue. It isn’t a small deal, it greatly affects the experience of the other riders. Many people, especially women, feel less safe on the trains. Both due to direct harassment, and indirectly due to the extremely low levels of mask compliance by homeless individuals. Not to mention the high degree of mental issues in the homeless population combined with the recent influx of people being pushed onto the tracks. Saying this is a mere aesthetic issue like graffiti is entirely disingenuous.

Third and most importantly: What do you propose? My point about it being a sensible trade off was that I think it is preferred compared to having overnight service with the corresponding homelessness problem. I didn’t mean to imply that we’re in the best of all possible worlds, or that there isn’t a better possible solution out there. But I’m sincerely asking: what realistic proposal do you have that would be practical to implement and pass and would both bring back overnight service while minimizing the homeless on the trains issue?

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Jeremiah Clemente February 1, 2021 - 4:06 pm

NYC is still and will continue to be, a 24-hour city. Nothing is going to change it. The need for 24/7 service is not only still there, but is also gaining traction.

The homeless issue can be dealt with later.

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SEAN February 1, 2021 - 7:52 pm

Yes exactly. To believe that NYC won’t return to being the 24/7 city prior to the pandemic is just lunacy. Oh sure there may be only 8 million residents Vs 8.7 million, but once the pandemic subsides a new breed of residents will spot the next big trend. That is what this city is all about.

Doctor Memory February 1, 2021 - 4:54 pm

So you’re basically saying that because some passengers might feel unsafe, no passengers should be able to ride the subway overnight.

My proposal is: stop pretending that solving the homeless issue is any sort of requirement to restoring overnight service. It’s not. We’ve had homeless people in the subway for decades. So does every other major transit system in the world. It’s not a reason to shut anything down.

Just because Andrew Cuomo woke up one day and decided it was a reason to keep paying customers off the subway overnight does not mean that we’re required to humor him. Our taxes and fares fund this thing. People took second and third shift jobs with the good faith expectation that they would be able to use the subway to get to them. The trains are still running, empty save for cops and MTA employees. Let paying customers back on if they want on.

If there is actually a systematic safety issue caused by the (so far completely unclassified: is is 50%? 5%? who knows!) increase in people sleeping on the subway, then well… we pay the NYPD north of ten billion dollars a year so maybe one of our Heroes In Blue could detach themselves from one of their groups of cops standing around the station entrance checking their cell phones and do a little police work for once.

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Curious February 1, 2021 - 5:26 pm

I don’t think it’s such a radical statement to say that having homeless people essentially living in the cars makes people feel less safe and in general greatly decreases the quality of the ride. You phrased it like it was this highly speculative statement without addressing any of my claims about harassment of women, face masks, etc.

Also, I can’t believe you’ve given me such an easy retort here but I have to take it: you know what else no other major subway system in the world has? 24-hour service! Now I’m not saying that’s necessarily a slam-dunk case saying we shouldn’t have it. I’m saying that this is clearly a trade-off between the number of commuters it would help during those off hours (a number that is lower due to the pandemic) versus the number of homeless it would attract (a number increased by the pandemic). How we ultimately weigh those two factors is partially a value judgement to be sure. This is what I meant in my first comment – I personally see the current solution as the lesser of the two evils.

I think your suggestion about increasing police enforcement is a valid one, but the question remains if it would be blocked by activists who wouldn’t want homeless people booted, sometimes forcibly, off the trains. Would you support such a policy if it meant the restoration of overnight service? Again, it’s a subjective value judgement.

P.S. I’m not going to justify Mr. Clemente’s extremely low-quality comment above with a direct response. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to think through how literally every sentence of his post is asinine.

Doctor Memory February 1, 2021 - 9:44 pm

(the threading seems broken here, so hopefully I’m responding to Curious @5:26pm.)

You keep stating hypotheticals as if they were facts and then using them to justify a concrete action that’s already happened. Some people might feel uncomfortable with homeless people on the trains. It’s possible that it might become a political issue if the police try to roust disruptive people from the trains. Here’s my radical proposal: we somehow were able to manage all that 12 months ago so let’s try and find out. All of these things were just as likely to happen before Cuomo shut down overnight service: are we seriously supposed to keep paying to run empty trains until we’ve decided we have a plan to make sure that nobody might ever feel uncomfortable again? Until we’ve completely solved not only homelessness but the politics of homelessness in NYC?

You also keep bringing up scenarios that have no bearing on overnight service: people have definitely been harrassed and even attacked by mentally ill people on the subway, and what all of the incidents of that recently have in common was that they happened during the day. Should we shut the system off entirely until we figure it out?

I find this particular type of NYC cynicism exasperating: “nothing will ever improve, so we should change nothing except to make more things off limits.” Even more exasperating is the rampant dishonesty: say what you will about this conversation but at least you and I are both in agreement that homelessness is the topic under discussion. Cuomo is still insisting that it’s about cleaning the trains, months after everyone realized that surface transmission isn’t a meaningful vector for the pandemic.

Thomas Graves February 5, 2021 - 1:51 am

Dr. Memory, have you never been out of the US or the shit-hole that is New York? You are completely wrong. In the “major transit systems” of Singapore and Tokyo (where I live now) the homeless do NOT inhabit the subway system & no one would tolerate their filth & frequently dangerous behavior as a daily occurrence. Regardless of COVID-19, the NY subways desperately need to be cleaned. Thank God I no longer live there and have to deal with the insanity of subways used as homeless shelters and people who think that’s just great.

Jeremiah Clemente` February 6, 2021 - 6:26 pm

Thomas, the subways can be cleaned without closing them. That’s the point people are trying to make.

Commuter February 1, 2021 - 6:41 pm

You seem to be under the absurd delusion that the MTA is a homeless shelter on tracks and that they are at all responsible for the well-being of NYC’s homeless population. This is absolutely not the case, and if the situation arises — and it has — where this population is disrupting the MTA’s purpose of providing transportation services, then they must be considered part of the problem.

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Doctor Memory February 1, 2021 - 9:30 pm

Neither Cuomo nor anyone at the MTA has claimed that the homeless were disrupting operations on the subway

And I actually agree: the subway isn’t a homeless shelter and it’s not the MTA’s responsibility to solve the homelessness problem. But that cuts both ways: shutting off passenger service overnight doesn’t solve the problem either (in my neighborhood it seems to mostly push them into the local bus shelters) and it punishes thousands of people who previously used the subway’s overnight service. Literally nobody is benefitting from this, but at least we’re still paying to run empty trains all around the city and do entirely performative cleaning of them, so that’s…nice?

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VLM February 1, 2021 - 10:33 am

I came here to say what Doctor Memory already said. This is a deeply crappy trade-off for the city at large and for the tens of thousands of essential workers who still need to travel from 1-5 a.m. every night. The government’s failures at responding to a problem should not be foisted upon workers just trying to get home.

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Eric February 3, 2021 - 9:14 am

What would be actually great would be reserving zoning restrictions so that poor people can afford housing and don’t have to become homeless to begin with.

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Larry Penner February 1, 2021 - 9:43 am

Excellent analysis!

Ironically, there is no operational savings for NYC Transit as they are running the same number of trains with the same number of employees between 1 and 5 AM. NYC has and will always be a 24/7 town. Why not a phased in return to 24/7, by first reducing the shut down hours to between 2 and 4 AM?

Perhaps it is time to return to the days when a transit police officer was assigned to ride each train. This, along with installation of security cameras on trains and stations might help to reduce both vandalism and crime. It might also contribute to an increase in the number of overnight riders.

Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for grants supporting billions in capital projects and programs on behalf of the MTA, NYC Transit bus and subway, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus and NYC Department of Transportation along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).

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Bob February 1, 2021 - 4:54 pm

There is also the issue that the stations actually seem to be getting dirtier recently. Take a look at the trackbed.

Sarah Feinberg – use the vacuum trains that were purchased!

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rastnic February 2, 2021 - 3:36 pm

Just one typo – Even though the virus is largely airborne and surface transmission is rare, (airborn and surface should be switched)

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Smotri February 8, 2021 - 2:50 pm

As I tried to make sense of the MTA’s weekend line closure advisories in order to use subway on Sunday I wondered why, with the system closed between 1 and 5 am each day, there are still all these station and line changes, delays and yes, dirty train cars and stations again. What’s the point of all this then?

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Jeremiah Clemente February 15, 2021 - 4:43 pm

No additional track work is being performed during the closures, as trains are still operating on the main lines. However, with the accelerated 24/7 closure of the E train in Jamaica they had back in October, E and F train service east of Union Turnpike has not been disrupted much. Perhaps they need to move to this model instead.

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Fabio February 11, 2021 - 4:41 pm

I absolutely need the 24/7 subway service. IMMEDIATELY!!!

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