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How to Save Gotham Transit

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from the magazine

How to Save Gotham Transit

As New York reopens, subways and buses will be more essential than ever. Summer 2020
New York City Reborn
Infrastructure and energy
Covid-19

In the 116 years since October 27, 1904, when Mayor George McClellan, Jr., took the ceremonial silver controls of New York’s first passenger subway train and guided inaugural guests from City Hall to 103rd Street in 26 minutes, the city’s transit system has endured deadly crashes, fires, strikes, hurricanes, and terror attacks. But it has never seen anything quite like this: a long-term public-health crisis that cripples both the means of mass transit—crowding people tightly together on trains and buses to get them efficiently from point A to point B—and the goal of mass transit, to enable people to congregate and pursue opportunity in dense cities. As New York tries to reopen its economy, the transit system must manage both short-term operational hurdles and long-term budget woes. But a more profound uncertainty also emerges: How much will workers, businesses, and tourists change their behavior because of Covid-19, and what will that mean for transit?

New York’s transit system, run by the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority, consists of subway lines, bus routes, and railroad ventures, almost all formerly privately operated. The trains and buses transport people from the boroughs and the suburbs into core Manhattan, below 60th Street, to work during the day, and then send them home again at night. This model has faced significant strain before, most gravely in the decades after World War II, when subway ridership into Manhattan fell from a peak of nearly 2.4 million people daily in 1948 to a low of 1.6 million in 1980.

Two factors accounted for the decline. First—and in the earliest part of the postwar era, until about 1960—workers still wanted or needed to come to Manhattan, but they now preferred to use their own cars, something that the city couldn’t accommodate fully without destroying the fabric of urban life. From 1960 to 1980, though, the total number of people arriving each day dropped by about 10 percent, to 3 million, as the city hemorrhaged manufacturing and management jobs.

New York, miraculously, turned this around. In the 1980s, as the state and city invested billions to rebuild transit infrastructure, people began flocking back, re-creating the tax and jobs base that would help Gotham tackle other issues, such as crime and education, a decade later. Manhattan remained the core destination, though governors and mayors have tried to create smaller jobs hubs in the city, from downtown Brooklyn to Long Island City to Harlem, with modest success.

By the eve of the pandemic, New York had essentially revived its pre–World War II model, with a different mix of jobs—now office- and service-based instead of manufacturing and corporate headquarters. In 2018 (the last year for which full data are available), New York’s economy looked remarkably similar in terms of physical movement to the economy of seven decades ago. Out of the 3.8 million people crowding core Manhattan each weekday, 2.9 million came by subway, bus, rail, or ferry. Only 878,000 arrived by car—and many of these were trucks ferrying goods, not people.

Covid-19 is the biggest challenge to mass transit—and New York’s dense economy—since the Model T. Over two weeks in late March, subway ridership plummeted from 5.5 million people on an average weekday—including many passengers not going to Manhattan—to fewer than 500,000, mostly essential workers traveling to supermarkets, drugstores, and hospitals. Commuter-rail and bus ridership collapsed by similar levels. Transit riders hadn’t switched to cars; toll crossings on bridges and tunnels were also down significantly. The passengers just vanished. None of this is surprising, of course: the economy was deliberately shut down. As New York entered the first phase of its reopening in mid-June, allowing retail curbside pickup and construction work to begin, weekday ridership climbed above 800,000—but, at just 1.4 million subway riders daily in late August, is still nearly three-quarters below the normal level.

“The mornings continue to be busy,” says Sarah Feinberg, acting head of New York City Transit, the MTA’s subway and bus division. “5:30 AM to 7:30 AM is currently our morning rush”—evidence that blue-collar, rather than white-collar, workers have stayed on and returned to on-location work. “We’d like to see that morning peak . . . lengthen out more,” she says, “so as more people come back to work we hope they’ll commute later,” such as from 8 AM to 11 AM, thus reducing crowding.

More ominous over the long term is the perception that taking mass transit will put oneself, and those with whom one comes into contact, at acute risk of infection. This idea is far from proven—with Covid-19, not much is—but circumstantial evidence is suggestive. Transit, after all, is an enclosed indoor space, where it’s hard to escape droplets from other people’s breathing or coughing. Further, at least 131 New York transit workers have died from coronavirus, a death rate of 351 per 100,000—far higher than the city’s overall virus death rate of 270 per 100,000. The Centers for Disease Control counsels employers to encourage returning workers to commute in a way that minimizes “close contact with others,” and the New York Stock Exchange, in inviting a small portion of its trading-floor workforce back to lower Manhattan in late May, took that advice, forbidding the traders from using mass transit.

New York won’t be able to rebuild its economy without restoring confidence in transit. Consider that if just 10 percent of the city’s transit riders switched from subway, bus, or rail to private car, the number of motor vehicles on Manhattan’s streets would rise by a third. A far smaller increase in cars—tens of thousands of new Uber and Lyft vehicles, rather than hundreds of thousands—nearly brought Manhattan to a standstill in the mid-2010s.

The MTA’s immediate task is both operational and psychological: provide reliable service to the riders who need transit now, and demonstrate to them, as well as to everyone watching, that it can do so without spurring further Covid-19 outbreaks. Indeed, the MTA’s success or failure here doesn’t just affect transit. “The first challenge is convincing the public” of “actual levels of safety and perceived levels of safety,” says Tom Prendergast, MTA chairman from 2013 to 2017. Subways and buses are the first real test of whether New Yorkers can crowd safely into any indoor space, an outcome relevant to everything from Broadway theaters to nightclubs to group fitness classes.

On that front, the MTA, like other global transit systems, is requiring riders to wear masks and providing them to those without (compliance is high, though far from universal). The agency is aggressively cleaning trains and stations—ending overnight service, from 1 AM to 5 AM, for the first time ever, partly to carry out this task. “Riders returning to the system for the first time in months immediately notice how clean it is,” Feinberg says. The MTA is even using ultraviolet light to disinfect empty trains and stations and is experimenting with HEPA-level filters to circulate and purify air more effectively throughout the system. It’s moving quickly toward touchless turnstile entry, letting riders tap a contactless credit card against the turnstile machine to get in instead of making them touch a MetroCard vending-machine surface with their hands.

“The MTA faces a $7 billion to $8.5 billion deficit this year, and a $5.1 billion to $7.8 billion deficit next year.”

As long as the MTA keeps up social-media and marketing campaigns to remind the public that wearing masks is key, Prendergast thinks, people will comply. “Going back to the early 2000s, when I would go to Asia,” he says, “it was fairly commonplace. People would just wear masks. The more people see it as normal behavior,” he said, the more they will do it. “I thought they were doing it to protect themselves . . . but most said no, I’m doing it to protect someone else.” He counsels “a steady drumbeat message, if you address some of these behavior issues, someone telling [riders,] . . . ‘If you do it, it’s less likely the virus comes back,’ it’s less likely you have to go [back] to a shelter-in-place strategy.”

Its plan to keep trains less crowded means that the MTA will court indefinite fiscal disaster—running 100 percent of service, or close to it, with a small fraction of its fare and toll revenues. Of the MTA’s roughly $17.2 billion annual budget, $8.6 billion comes from fare and toll revenues and $6.5 billion comes from dedicated tax subsidies, including a portion of the downstate sales tax as well as petroleum taxes, real estate–related levies, and payroll taxes—all deeply affected by the shutdowns and a potentially slow economic recovery. (The rest of the budget comes from smaller sources, such as advertising and the MTA’s own retail real-estate rentals.) In April, the MTA contracted McKinsey consultants to estimate revenue losses at the agency; the consultants figure that between lower revenues and $700 million in extra costs for cleaning and the like, the MTA faces a $7 billion to $8.5 billion deficit this year, and a $5.1 billion to $7.8 billion deficit next year. That’s not so much a budget deficit as the obliteration of a budget.

The MTA will receive about $3.8 billion from the CARES Act, the Covid-19 rescue package passed by Congress in early April. But it will unquestionably need more. Janette Sadik-Khan, Bloomberg-era city transportation commissioner (now at Bloomberg Associates), notes: “New York carries 40 percent of the nation’s transit passengers but got only 14 percent of transit aid in the CARES Act. . . . Today, restoring the MTA is the project the nation can’t recover without. I don’t think it’s just hubris to say that New York’s workforce is the core of the national economy. . . . [A]s go our subways, trains, and buses, so goes the entire economy.” To save New York—as well as other cities dependent, to a lesser degree, on transit—Congress will likely need to provide indefinite operating aid, benchmarked to returning ridership (that is, the faster ridership returns, the quicker the operating subsidy would drop). Congress could link the aid with substantial cost reforms—including examining whether conductors are needed to collect tickets from all commuter-rail trains, for example, or whether New York could move to a gated-entry system, spot-checking tickets on trains—with a push to learn from Europe and developed Asia how American transit systems can deliver service more cheaply and effectively.

City government has a role to play in reducing crowding on subways and in redesigning streets to encourage people to bike, walk, or take a bus to work, rather than choose one of two unpalatable alternatives: take a private car, thus increasing congestion, or stay away altogether. Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, notes that the pandemic “really drove home how much essential workers rely on buses,” with bus use, generally lower than that of subway ridership, often exceeding it during the crisis. And, she notes, “with no traffic, the buses have moved,” with Manhattan bus speeds up 30 percent, to 7.7 miles per hour, in mid-May (since then, car traffic has picked up).

As New York starts to reopen, the city can build on its success of last year, in making 14th Street, a major Manhattan thoroughfare, into a mostly bus-only road. “We showed, with 14th Street, pretty phenomenal results,” explains Trottenberg. In late spring, the DOT unveiled a plan to build 20 more miles of bus lanes and busways across the five boroughs, including a marquee project to make all of Fifth Avenue, from 59th Street to 34th Street, into a bus-only corridor. “Fifth Avenue is a five-borough bus route,” Trottenberg says, as it “carries express routes from all the other boroughs.” It’s also an “iconic street,” with the busway possibly leaving more room for bicyclists and pedestrians. Yet the plan has inexplicably stalled over the summer.

Bicycles, too, “have proved, obviously, an important mode of transportation,” adds Trottenberg. In the first weeks of the shutdown, “all modes of transportation plummeted, but bikes plummeted less.” Citi Bike ridership for April totaled 23,071 rides each day—only 40 percent of last April’s ridership, but still far higher, as a percentage of regular traffic, than the use of subways, buses, or commuter rail. Now, with warmer weather, “Citi Bike is seeing record ridership on the weekends,” and ridership on weekdays is near-even with last year’s. To accommodate and encourage higher ridership—both on Citi Bike and on personally owned bikes—the city is building out bike lanes on major corridors and key connections to bridges, such as Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue. “We did nine miles of bike lanes in a week and a half, which, for us, is pretty astonishing,” says Trottenberg. The city is working with Citi Bike, a private franchise owned by ride-hail company Lyft, to add new bike stations within core Manhattan and to expand the overall system. At 149th Street in the South Bronx, for example, is a “brand-new shining Citi Bike station,” she points out; at another new bike lane nearby, she “watched two medical workers in their scrubs hop on the bikes and ride off.” Still, the city can be far more aggressive about building safe infrastructure for new cyclists; other major cities, including Paris, have turned over entire avenues to bicyclists.

The pandemic drove home how much essential workers rely on buses to get to their jobs; bus use exceeded subway use during the lockdown. (ZUMA PRESS, INC./ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

Longer term, the MTA faces an even tougher problem: where to find money for the tens of billions of dollars in planned upgrades, replacements and repairs, and new construction that it must do over the next five years. Prior to Covid-19, the MTA had planned a $54.8 billion, five-year, infrastructure “capital” budget, including everything from modernizing more subway signals to finishing the East Side Access project that will bring Long Island Rail Road trains to destinations beneath Grand Central Terminal.

Even pre-pandemic, the MTA’s financing plan for these investments was tenuous. Its biggest source of funding was $25 billion in bonds backed by $1.5 billion in annual revenues from congestion pricing, set to start next January, and sundry new taxes and fees passed by the state legislature last year, including a “mansion tax” on high-value property. Now, though, congestion pricing is delayed by at least a year, and it is highly unlikely that it will generate the money desired; high-end home sales, too, are down. The next-biggest funding source was going to be $10 billion in new bonds backed by the MTA’s general fare revenues. But this added debt (the MTA already owes $46 billion) would have increased the authority’s total debt burden by nearly one-fourth and brought annual debt costs from $2.8 billion this year to $4.3 billion by 2023—impossible to pay under current conditions. The MTA also depends on direct contributions of $6 billion from the state and city—highly unlikely when both levels of government face multibillion-dollar budget deficits. “They’re gonna be up shit creek,” warns Richard Ravitch, the early 1980s–era MTA chairman.

Making matters worse, if the MTA can’t obtain new federal money for operating expenditures, the state legislature has authorized the MTA to borrow up to $10 billion for short-term purposes, rather than long-term investments. “This whole idea of borrowing to deal with a revenue shortfall is questionable for two reasons,” explains Ravitch. “We have no idea what the revenue loss is going to be. For the city, for the state, for the MTA, we don’t know. We hope that . . . if there’s no revival of the virus,” the economy will reopen quickly, and people will flock back to the city, but it’s not guaranteed. Second, Ravitch says, “I don’t know how many people are moving out of New York City. I don’t know if that’s permanent . . . . I think the city’s attractions will restore the population, but I don’t know over what period of time.”

Ironically, low ridership and effective public-health measures for construction workers have allowed the MTA to do current infrastructure projects faster. The MTA has accelerated about $2 billion worth of work, including repairs on its underwater tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan and the installation of 11 elevators. Janno Lieber, head of the MTA’s construction arm, points to other upcoming projects that also could be done more quickly, including signal modernization. The authority would like to go ahead with all its construction work; but for now, Lieber says, “we have put a stop to new commitments.”

Here, the best answer again would be federal funding, tied to cost reform: Why not take advantage of historic low ridership to do more work, more quickly, without inconveniencing passengers? If federal funding isn’t forthcoming to pay the full capital program—the MTA had already budgeted $10.5 billion from the feds, pre-Covid—the authority should prioritize repair and replacement, argues Philip Plotch, author of Last Subway and a political science professor at Saint Peter’s University. “The MTA needs to properly maintain all of its facilities and equipment, and replace them once they become more expensive to maintain than to replace. That would make the transit system more efficient and the workforce more productive,” he says. “Pumps, fans, and signals” are “essential, if we do not want floods destroying our stations, smoke asphyxiating riders, and trains crashing into each other.”

Subway signals are particularly important. As Gregoire Sulmont, the New York operations director of infrastructure company Thales’s urban-rail business, says: “With overnight subway closures . . . providing additional access to the subway tracks and tunnels, there is a window of opportunity. . . . Now is not the time to slow down modernization,” especially as modern signals allow the MTA to run trains more closely together at a lower cost, thus “increasing public safety by lowering [on]-train density.”

Looming behind these questions is the biggest one: Will New York come back to what it was in February—and, if so, when? In normal times, New York’s complex, intertwined economy brings enormous benefits. Office workers support retail stores and restaurants, as do global tourists, and their foot traffic, in turn, supports everything from the opera to museums to nightclubs. With each variable magnifying all the others, even a small change has huge effects. A switch in the normal routine—white-collar commuters coming in three days a week and not five, say—would change everything from the perspective of retail stores, restaurants—and the MTA’s fare revenues.

Over the long term, New York can adjust, but how long is the long term? History shows that it could be three years, such as after the 2008 financial crisis—or 20 years, such as after the social and economic cataclysms of the 1970s. Only one thing is certain: transit is at recovery’s heart. As the New York Times said of that first day of subway operation, back in October 1904: “It was astonishing, though, how easily the passengers fell into the habit of regarding the Subway as a regular thing. While the crowds above were still eagerly watching the entrances to see men emerge, were still enthralled by the strangeness of it all, the men on the trains were quietly getting out at their regular stations and going home, having finished what will be to them the daily routine of the rest of their lives. It is hard to surprise New York permanently.”

Top Photo: Over two weeks in late March, average daily subway ridership plummeted from 5.5 million people to fewer than 500,000. (NINA WESTERVELT/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

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