If New York City doesn’t recover quickly and robustly from Covid-19, April 30, 2020 will mark the inflection point: when the city and state, afflicted with a historic crisis, decided to give up. That day, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York’s subway system will begin shutting down overnight, from 1 A.M. to 5 A.M. The shutdown is indefinite, so there’s a real chance that New York’s identity as the “the city that never sleeps” is gone.
The ostensible reasons for the shutdown are public health and public safety. Earlier this week, Cuomo called conditions on the subway “disgusting.” The state and city want the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority to shutter the subway system so that it can deep-clean stations and trains. “During this overnight period, the MTA will intensify disinfecting operations, cleaning its fleet of thousands of cars and buses every night, and further testing new and innovative cleaning solutions, including UV, antimicrobials and electrostatic disinfectants,” the authority said. The city also wants these closures to discourage the estimated 2,000 people— mostly adult men—who regularly use the subway system as overnight shelter. Though it’s hard to get a firm count during a pandemic, this number is likely higher now, as homeless individuals’ usual refuge points—public libraries and fast-food seating areas—are closed.
But the MTA does not need to shutter its system to experiment with new cleaning methods; it could skip stops if it must clean stations with no passengers present, and most train cars are unused at night, anyway. Neither the MTA nor the NYPD—in charge of enforcing subway rules—needs to close the system to enforce its long-standing rules against lying across seats, carrying an undue volume of belongings, or loitering in stations. And closing transit creates its own security headache: the city lacks the police resources to ensure that no one trespasses into 472 stations, each with multiple, hard-to-secure entrances.
What is clear is that even temporary closures create a hardship for essential workers—an estimated 11,000 people who use the trains during these hours. The MTA pledges to move these workers on buses, but at 20 people per bus, that’s 550 bus trips—a huge cost and burden on crew. The MTA will also offer free for-hire vehicle rides—adding to the risk of car-crash deaths on streets with plenty of room to speed.
If these closures were just temporary, perhaps they’d be reasonably termed “unprecedented action” for an “unprecedented time,” as MTA chairman Pat Foye said Thursday. Tellingly, though, the MTA offered no estimate of when it will resume service. In fact, it won’t even cease overnight service until the middle of next week—the week before New York’s economy is supposed to reopen.
The grim truth is that once the MTA ends overnight subway service, it will be difficult to restart it. The MTA faces multibillion-dollar deficits. Ridership on subways, buses, and commuter rail is down more than 90 percent; it likely will remain well below pre-pandemic ridership for months, if not years. The tax revenues and state and local subsidies upon which it depends to supplement fare income are also plummeting; prospects for congestion pricing, which was supposed to bring in $1.5 billion annually starting next year, appear dim. At the same time, the MTA cannot curtail service to meet lower volumes, nor should it. That will just mean more crowding, as private-sector workers—it is hoped, anyway—begin coming back to work. The MTA has long been inefficient with its spending, but with nearly 100 transit workers dead from the coronavirus, now is not the time to squeeze front-line labor.
Without firm federal, state, and local support, how is the MTA supposed to resume overnight service? If New York’s subway simply shuts down at night, it’s a disaster for the city’s recovery. Pre-pandemic, 12,050 people left core Manhattan by subway during the 1 A.M. hour alone; 2,415 people came in. They did so on just 115 trains. It’s not economical to replace subway service with overnight buses—at least not if the state and city don’t want to leave waitresses and office-building cleaners on street corners for an hour. The subways support New York’s nightlife, too: restaurants, clubs, theater. A subway that closes at 1 A.M. only pushes people to go home earlier, lest they miss the last train. As New York’s restaurants, bars, and theaters—again, fingers crossed—begin to reopen in the coming weeks and months, the state and city are imposing a huge new burden on their workers and customers. The subways also support early-morning workers: 8,603 people take the subway to Manhattan—mostly to work— during the 4 A.M. hour alone.
Overnight subway service is partly responsible for New York State’s low traffic-death rate, less than half the U.S. average. Pre-pandemic, subway ridership home from Manhattan during the 1 A.M. hour rivaled car usage. More people in cars in the middle of the night means more deaths—including of pedestrians and cyclists, who will be hit by drunk drivers.
For now, the biggest blow is psychological. It’s likely that tens of thousands of New Yorkers have decamped from the city to less-dense parts of the country; many will need coaxing to come back. Over the past three decades, one of the biggest markers of New York’s success was that after a late dinner, show, ballgame, or flight, you could get on a subway at 1:30 A.M. and ride home, surrounded by fellow New Yorkers and tourists, and think nothing of it. How can the city that never sleeps euthanize its subways?
President Trump should pay attention, too. If there was ever a time for federal support, it is now. There is no other way to move millions of people in and out of the core city every day. If New York can’t convince people to flock back to mass transit, then Manhattan as we know it is dead—it’s that simple.
Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images