Nicole Gelinas joins Seth Barron to discuss her research on New York subway ridership, the future of the city’s subways, and the decriminalization of fare-jumping, a reversal of a critical policing strategy that helped fight crime.

Subway ridership in New York has nearly doubled since 1977, but it’s not tourists packing the trains: it’s city residents. And New York’s poorest neighborhoods have seen the biggest growth in annual ridership over the last 30 years.

The subway’s future looks uncertain, though. Decades of storm damage, insufficient maintenance, and inadequate system upgrades have led to mounting delays and declining reliability. If city leadership doesn’t address the crisis, New York’s poorest residents will be most affected.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks. This is Seth Baron, Associate Editor of City Journal. It's no exaggeration to say that New York City is unimaginable without its subway system. Millions of people rely on it every day in much the same way that most Americans rely on their cars. I'm joined today by Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal, to discuss her latest report: “New York's Economic Future Rides on Its Subways”. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Nicole.

Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Seth. Thanks for inviting me back.

Seth Barron: So what's the story with the subways? Is ridership up or down?

Nicole Gelinas: Well, yes. Ridership is up. It basically doubled between 1977 and 2016, but it's been going down for the past two years. Although we can talk about the complexities of estimating that later but one might think it's just because the population went up, and yes that's true. We have a record population in the city. You know the parts of the city that are served by the subway, excluding Staten Island, are up about 15 percent since 1990. Number of jobs is up about 40 percent and tourism has more than doubled to more than 62 million people a year.

Seth Barron: Okay, so basically is Subway ridership up 15 percent matching the population? I mean you said it's doubled. I don't understand. How did so many people start taking the subway if the population hasn't gone up that much?

Nicole Gelinas: Yes, and that's the question that I tried to answer in the subway. I wanted to know who was riding the subway and why, and it may seem obvious that it's just being driven by population and tourism. But that's not really the case. If you look at by borough, there are four boroughs that have subway service: Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. Subway ridership is not very well connected to population. It didn't grow the fastest in Manhattan even though we have the biggest explosion of the tourist population. Instead, it's correlated with jobs but in a complex way. It really has to do with how the city has increased its workforce participation rate over the past nearly 30 years. If you look at the workforce participation rate in a place like the South Bronx or Bushwick or Central Harlem back in 1990, it was very low. Back then only 44% of adults were in the workforce in the South Bronx community districts. Very, very low obviously compared to around 70 percent and the rest of the US economy, and today it's up to 50 percent. Still low but a big increase and so what it says is these are the places where Subway ridership has grown the most. The ridership has well more than doubled in people getting on the train in these neighborhoods since 1998, which is the first year we have station data because that's the first year we had the MetroCard. So what's happening is more people have moved to these places. The population is different in that the new population is much more willing and able to work, and a greater number of these workers rely on the subway to get back and forth to work. So basically you could not have repopulated the South Bronx with people who are working if you didn't have the subway to get them to jobs in Manhattan, and they can't walk to good jobs in these neighborhoods.

Seth Barron: So you're saying it's like a question of gentrification of these neighborhoods, or are the people, say the native population, doing better and more involved? I mean high school graduation has gone up in the same period and unemployment is down. Is it possible to parse those out?

Nicole Gelinas: It's really both. I mean obviously a place like Bushwick has seen a lot of gentrification over the past 20 years. A lot of college educated young people, they see this as an affordable place to live, and they take the L train into Manhattan to work. But you look at the South Bronx; the people who are gentrifying the South Bronx are poor immigrants. The immigration population has also risen tremendously over the past three decades, so African immigrants, Middle Eastern immigrants, people who have moved here because they wanted more. One of the reasons is that they want to be in the workforce. But I didn't look into whether the people who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time have also joined the workforce, but when you're looking at a 30-year change, it’s really a turnover of that population, anyway.

Seth Barron: I see. So to what extent is economic activity, or the types of jobs that people have who live in the South Bronx or Bushwick, are they primarily jobs in Manhattan? Say in the service industry or office work, or to what extent is it local?

Nicole Gelinas: It is mostly people who have to take a subway train somewhere to get to a job. So it's hospitality industry, hotels, restaurants, serving the tourist population of Manhattan. And it's hospitals, service work in hospitals, usually not in the neighborhood. And some office work, retail work, and obviously although every neighborhood has some retail, maybe a little bit of office, the hub for these jobs is still Central Manhattan. And you can see it in the percentage of people who walk to work. Less than ten percent of people who live in South Bronx can walk to work, and thirty percent of people who live in Lower Manhattan can walk to work or do walk to work. And if you're walking to work in Lower Manhattan, you have access to high paying jobs, low paying jobs, middle paying jobs, depending on your skill level, and that's really not the case in the South Bronx, Central Harlem, Bushwick.

Seth Barron: No I know the MetroCard system allows the MTA to track entry into the system but not exit. Is there any research done on how much commuting there is, say between the Bronx and Queens or Queens and Brooklyn. Is everybody, I mean I know this is not exactly the subject of your piece, but I thought maybe you know anything about that.

Nicole Gelinas: There has been some research. URPA and a couple of other places might have done some work on inter-borough commutes, where people don't go to Manhattan, and we need better transit for inter-borough commuters. Like people who are home healthy, for example, that if you live in the Bronx and you're commuting to Queens and you're taking three buses, this is not a very good commute. But if we as a city still depend on the spoke to hub, you know a lot of people live in the outer boroughs and they come into Manhattan every day, and that's still where the highest paying and most diverse choice of jobs is.

Seth Barron: As the MTA moves away from the MetroCard to a… I don't know what do you call the other system where you just scan your…

Nicole Gelinas: Well it's a tap system. But I mean by the time they get there it's probably going to be more like tapping your phone. You know how you can go to the supermarket now, tap your phone, it's much faster than paying with a credit card.

Seth Barron: Do you suppose that the MTA will impose either a zone type of system or station-to-station pricing, as they've always done in Washington, D.C.? I'm just speaking from like a walks perspective that would certainly provide a lot more data.

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, I mean we could get the data. I guess there's some privacy issues with that if we did use the phone to enter. If location services are on, the phone could follow you to where you're going. I don't know if that would be wise or not, but in terms of zoned fare, I don't think it's a great idea for New York. One thing is the exit turnstiles are cumbersome. Maybe you can fix that with the technology, but another thing is the people who tend to have the longest commutes are not the wealthier people on the subways. If I'm going from Jamaica to lower Manhattan or I'm coming from Central Bronx and I have a much longer trip than someone living on the Upper West Side, it's not like you're getting value the more stations you have to wait.

Seth Barron: That does make sense. It would be very regressive.

Nicole Gelinas: Maybe the MTA and legislature should think about peak hour fares, things like that. I'm not sure that that would actually benefit lower wage workers. If they work in the restaurant industry, retail industry, and they're not working from nine to five.

Seth Barron: So your story speaks about the future, “New York's Economic Future Rides on Its Subways”. So what does New York need to do to make its subways keep us going into the future and into a prosperous future? With the building of Hudson Yards under Mayor Bloomberg, they extended the seven-line, and that seems like it was a pretty radical transformation. And then I guess the second Avenue subway naturally. But these things seem very expensive and kind of hard to do.

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, I think that's a fair analysis. The most important thing is to modernize the subway signals because we can't space the trains closely enough together. If you if you go to Paris, there's a train every minute and 45 seconds, and no one cares if they miss their train because there is another one coming as soon as one has pulled out. And we can't do that here with our 1930 signals, and so that's what the MTA is thinking about now. But they haven't figured out how they are going to do this. How are they going to do it at a reasonable cost? How are we going pay for that? So that is something that the state and city still need to figure out. The running a bus service above a closed subway line so that you can take some time to do the work on re-signaling the line but people can still get around. I mean figuring those types of things out. But another thing we have to do is continue to keep the subway safe, and as you know crime has plummeted in the subway system just as it has in the rest of the city. In 1990 we had 26 murders into subways. Oftentimes we'll go a whole year without any murders into subways today. But you wrote an interesting piece in the Post this week.

Seth Barron: Oh you read it?

Nicole Gelinas: Oh yes, I happened to read it. Writing that we’re not enforcing fair beating as much, and so maybe you could talk about the possible implications of that.

Seth Barron: Oh my, okay. So we’ll sort of change roles here a little bit. Yeah well I did write this piece because it seemed to me interesting that over the last couple of years, ridership is down in the subway. But I looked at the same kind of data that you were looking at in terms of population and employment and tourism, and I didn't get into it with the same kind of depth that you have, but it seemed counterintuitive that ridership would be down. And also the subways still seem pretty crowded, and that's a major complaint. But it did occur to me that the District Attorneys have said that they're going to stop prosecuting fare beating arrests, when people jump the turnstiles, and the NYPD has very dramatically reduced its enforcement of fare beating. So it occurred to me that yes, official ridership may be down, but could it be that there's just a lot more people fare beating and that's why the trains are just as crowded as ever. I think anecdotally, people have reported that they see a lot more people jumping the turnstiles. I've heard many stories of whole families just waiting by the emergency exit for someone to come out and then going through, and I think this is just becoming a normal thing.

Nicole Gelinas: I think it's becoming more normal. It makes sense. If the enforcement on fare beating plummets by both civil violations, where it's not a crime, you just pay the fine for beating the fare, and much less frequently criminal violation, if you have a long history of fare beating or you have other outstanding warrants and so forth. But enforcement of these things is down thirty to sixty percent over the past couple of years, and so it's not that the people who were already beating the fare stopped, it's just that that's no longer recorded. And it certainly would make sense if you beat the fare and you got a ticket, you're less likely to beat the fare the next time.  Obviously not most people do this, and there are still a small percentage of people, but it makes economic sense if there's no deterrent or less of a deterrent to something, more people will do it. And I see it. At 50th Street there's no gate attendant, this is the emergency exit, there’s nobody there, and people will walk through, three and four people. It doesn't seem to fit any demographic or age or anything profile. It's just if the door is open and no one's there, people are tempted to go through.

Seth Barron: Sure. I think about it in terms of speeding. Most people will speed if there's no penalty.

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, I mean we have these speeding cameras. That's a big part of you don't want to raise money with the cameras; you want to deter people from speeding by fining them for speeding. So it's the same general idea, and there's a concern that's been borne out by history that if more people are entering not paying the fare or some of these people are engaging in other criminal activities, fights, robberies, so forth. We still get guns off the subway system every year from people who were caught beating the fare, so the less that kind of enforcement that you do, that gun might make its way into subway and so a fight could turn into a bigger tragedy.

Seth Barron: Oh definitely. I mean it's really the essence of broken windows policing, I think. To stop a subway, I think the example that's always proffered, like someone who's jumping a turnstile, they're not necessarily going to be a robber or a killer, but a robber or a killer is pretty likely to not worry so much about making sure he pays his fare. So it's a good way to catch the big fish. One funny thing before we end is New York City is going to roll out a new initiative, which is to provide half-price fares to poor people. And they haven't really worked out all the details, but they call it “The Fair Fares Campaign”. And I think this is a nationwide initiative. But to me, when I was thinking about fare beating, it seemed like a very infelicitous phrase to call it “Fair Fares” because the message is that paying the full fare is unfair. The fair thing is to make it to only pay part of the fare. So if the fair fare’s unfair, well then why pay it?

Nicole Gelinas: Right. And it's an interesting issue because the proponents of the fair fares say that the many fare beaters can't afford to pay the fare and that's why they jump over the turnstile. So presumably, with the fair fares, there's really no excuse for jumping over the turnstile anymore. I mean of course you could have an extraordinary case where you had a relative in the hospital and you had no money to your name, but most of these cases that people have presented are that most poor workers and people earning the minimum wage who get around on the subway are paying the fare.

Seth Barron: Right.

Nicole Gelinas: There's no evidence that there's an endemic of fare beating among poor people using subways to get to work, and so for a small minority of people who do, now that excuse is taken away.

Seth Barron: Yeah. I'd like to know will the NYPD start stricter enforcement of fare beating, and will the DA's resume prosecution once there are discounted fares for the poor.

Nicole Gelinas: Right and it doesn't have to be prosecution. For the vast majority of cases it should be, and it is, a civil fine. That's why it's a little bit worrisome that even as criminal summonses have gone down, civil summonses have gone down too. Because you would think if we're moving from criminal prosecution to civil fines, that as one goes down, the other would go up. But they're both going down. So unless it's just an epidemic of people suddenly becoming very honest or the people who are no longer riding the subways were the fare beaters, any drop in civil enforcement makes one think that a lot more fair beating is going unenforced.

Seth Barron: Well I'm glad you agree. Nicole, this has been a very enlightening conversation for me.

Nicole Gelinas: Likewise.

Seth Barron: I hope our audience has enjoyed it. I'd like to mention that the summer edition, the print issue of City Journal, is out. It's a very exciting issue. There's a great piece by Nicole in it on autonomous vehicles, so driverless cars I guess you would call it.

Nicole Gelinas: And a great piece by Seth as well on the hundred year anniversary of the massacre of the Romanovs in Russia.

Seth Barron: Yes, yes. So rush to the newsstand, and buy a copy of City Journal, which is will be rolled out online. We'd love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks. If you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening, and thanks Nicole for joining us.

Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Seth.

Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty Images

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