Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

Our Transit Tomorrow

Nicole Gelinas

June 26, 2024

The world has changed. Mass transit needs to adapt.

The world has changed. Mass transit needs to adapt.

New York has never been good at gradual adjustment. It took 2,262 murders in 1990 for the City to radically change how it addressed crime, and it took more than 600,000 stop-question-and-frisk intrusions annually by the early 2010s for the City to realize that it had overcorrected. The City loves big solutions to big problems, rather than modest changes that prevent big problems in the first place.

Yet in reorienting the city’s mass transit system to a work-from-home-sometimes world, what New York needs from the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority and from City government, which governs the streets, are (mostly) small solutions: gradual, iterative change to accommodate how millions of people have changed where they need to go, how often and the ways they get around.

How we got here

New York’s transit system, largely completed more than a century ago, was built for a world in which millions of people invaded Manhattan five days a week each morning from increasingly dispersed points north, south, east and west, and retreated each afternoon. The transit system was the effect, not the cause, of people’s desire to live in less cramped conditions than turn-of-the-century tenement-and-factory Manhattan, and of the real estate industry’s motive to serve them.

As the 20th century wore on, and New York’s manufacturing industry lost its jobs to the South, to overseas and to automation, this transit-based economy adapted itself to five-day-a-week office work. Starting in the 1950s, multiple mayoral administrations, from Robert Wagner to Mike Bloomberg a half-century later, encouraged — and subsidized — office-tower development to ensure that high-paying white-collar jobs replaced factory jobs. To make sure that suburban and outer-borough workers could get to these jobs, beginning in the 1960s, the state government, responsible for mass transit beginning with the creation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968, rebuilt the mass transit system after decades of neglect.

Although it hadn’t seemed so at the time, New York’s 1920s- to early-1960s focus on building roads at the expense of transit proved to be short-lived. One reason that this interregnum of neglect between building transit and rebuilding transit proved to be short was hard-headed: It was physically impossible to bring people from all points into Manhattan by private motor vehicle rather than by subway, rail or bus, at least not without obliterating the very workplace hub to which people and businesses remained attracted.

This policy of supporting transit to support high-paying Manhattan jobs worked. By 2019, on any autumn weekday, nearly 3.8 million people came into Manhattan below 60th Street, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. Just 24% came via a private motor vehicle (auto, taxi, van, truck). Nearly all of the remainder came via transit, including 58% via subway. (Just 1% came via bicycle.)

People came to Manhattan to work, to visit a hospital or to be entertained. All of these activities supported jobs. That year, New York boasted nearly 4.7 million jobs, 47% above the 1977 low. Of private-sector jobs, 59% were in Manhattan (compared to 19% of the city’s population residing in the central borough), including a disproportionate share of the tri-state region’s high-paying jobs.

Relative to that mid-1970s nadir, New York had increased the number of people coming into the hub each day by 30%. Subway ridership to Manhattan had increased 34%; commuter railroad ridership had doubled. The number of people coming in by car, by contrast, had grown just 3%. Put another way, New York had added hundreds of thousands of new jobs and enabled commuters to reach those jobs, without requiring a single extra car to enter Manhattan (Uber and Lyft disturbed this idyll in the early 2010s, but that is another story).

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The pandemic and what’s come since

The COVID-19 lockdowns thus represented the first serious threat to a three-quarter-century-old business model: to bring people into Manhattan offices each day to earn and spend money (and pay taxes) and send them back at the end of the day. What would happen to the city’s office jobs, commercial-property market, restaurant and retail jobs that depended on office workers — and the transit system that supported this world? 

Let’s enjoy modest good news: This fragile system has partly regenerated itself. Yes, 2020 and 2021, when almost nobody went to work in Manhattan, were horrible, and Midtown was empty. Yet in 2022, by contrast, the last year for which full data are available from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, 2.8 million people entered core Manhattan each day. The situation continued to improve through 2023, then plateaued: New York office visits have recovered to between 72% and 74% of the pre-COVID norm, exceeding the national average of 60%, and a University of Toronto School of Cities analysis from last fall puts our central foot-traffic recovery at 66%

That’s not exactly stellar news: These figures mean that Manhattan commuter and visitor levels, in 2022, were at their lowest levels since the Great Depression. But it’s not nothing — and it comes despite the fact that Manhattan is less pleasant than it was in 2019, with almost all measures of felony and misdemeanor crime up. It’s also despite the fact that people have proven that they can work at home. The fact that most New York City office workers, much of the time, still go into the office says something in favor of the resilience of the hub-based New York economy — something to build on. 

The COVID-19 lockdowns represented the first serious threat to a three-quarter-century-old business model: to bring people into Manhattan offices each day to earn and spend money (and pay taxes) and send them back at the end of the day.

And just like we didn’t recover from the 1970s nadir by turning to the car to save us from transit woes, the car isn’t saving the hub now. Although car and truck traffic into Manhattan has nearly returned to the pre-COVID normal, far faster than transit ridership has, it hasn’t surged above the pre-COVID normal, even without congestion pricing. 

People refrain from driving into Manhattan for the same reasons they’ve always refrained from driving into Manhattan: because it is not convenient and, unless you’re a government worker, private parking rates make it expensive. Things are working the way they are supposed to, albeit at a much lower volume, despite the biggest stress test in modern history: New York remains a hub-based, transit-based city.

Further, declined visitation to Manhattan — although not to this degree — fulfills a post-millennial New York City goal, one that the City was slowly achieving before COVID-19 hit: to diversify higher-paying jobs across boroughs. 

A city that moves differently

Part of the reason that New York wanted to diversify jobs away from Manhattan was that the transit system was operating beyond capacity, particularly at peak hours. From that point of view, another post-COVID commuting change is mildly positive: People are using the flexibility that work-from-home affords to come into the office, and leave it, at less crowded times. In 2019, 38% of visitors to Manhattan came during the peak three morning hours (7-10 a.m.). In 2022, just 33% did. As with the pre-COVID effort to diversity jobs from Manhattan, this decline was not the start of a trend but the continuation of it: In 1990, the share of people arriving in the peak three hours was much higher, 43%.

So yes, we should worry about the decline in people coming to Manhattan. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that most office workers, some of the time, are still coming. Finally, when people do work at home two or three days a week, they aren’t just sitting at home doing nothing: They are spending more money at restaurants and stores in their own neighborhoods, another good thing. 

Finally, one last piece of good news. While a transit system that’s carrying fewer than three-quarters of its pre-COVID traffic obviously faces financial problems in its day-to-day operating budget, partly dependent on fare revenue, Gov. Hochul and the state Legislature solved that problem, at least in the short term, in 2023, by increasing an existing tax on City payrolls to fund the MTA. No, a $1.1 billion annual tax hike is not optimal, especially in a high-tax city that is shedding its taxpaying population. But it means the MTA doesn’t face catastrophic service cuts. Even the apparent demise of congestion pricing, which had been set to start June 30 until the governor got cold feet, doesn’t create an immediate crisis, as the MTA has several other untapped revenues allocated for the current capital plan, and as the governor says that the state will replace the $1 billion it would have brought in annually to the MTA, earmarked for capital investments, with a different state funding source. It’s conceivable that the state could scale down its congestion-pricing program so that it is more appropriate for a Manhattan still in recovery — say, with a peak-hours-only toll rather than a 24-hour-a-day toll, and a toll that’s lower than $15 for cars — and supplement the program’s lower revenues with a different funding source from the state budget.  

Things are working the way they are supposed to, albeit at a much lower volume, despite the biggest stress test in modern history: New York remains a hub-based, transit-based city.

Where (and how) we go from here

The governor’s 2023 payroll-tax hike bought time for the MTA. What should the MTA — and the City — do with this bought time? Make incremental short-term changes to coax people back onto the transit system to Manhattan more often, and make longer-term, bigger changes to help people get around better without touching the Manhattan hub. 

The biggest change New York needs to make is for the state and City to get the public safety and quality-of-life environment back to where it was in 2019. Through the end of April 2024, the per-capita violent felony rate on the transit system in 2024 was 0.82 per million rides — 62% higher than the 0.51 rate that persisted in 2019. Random murder has been a particular concern over the past four years, with 35 people killed on the transit system between 2020 and early 2024, five times the per-capita rate of the previous two decades. 

In the final quarter of 2019, 65% of passengers felt safe from crime onboard trains; by fall 2023, despite some improvement from the post-COVID low, the figure was just 52%. It shouldn’t be beyond the possible for New York to re-attain 2019 levels of public safety and order, both through far more assertive incapacitation and treatment of the severely mentally ill, but also, yes, through additional fixes to the pre-COVID criminal justice “reforms” that released too many recidivist criminals to the streets and subways. 

Another incremental improvement both to bring people back to Manhattan regularly and to cajole irregular riders to the transit system is frequency of service. As David Gurin, former deputy transportation commissioner for New York City, puts it, “The key is to encourage more midday and weekend riders to make up for the diminished rush hour. The way to do this is by shortening headways,” the length of time between trains. Gurin thinks three- to five-minute headways on off-peak subway routes would be appropriate. The MTA is making some progress, with more frequent off-peak and weekend service relative to previous 10- to 12-minute waits, but such wait times are still closer to six to eight minutes than to three to five minutes. 

But frequency is irrelevant if scheduled service is unreliable. To that end, the MTA has had a dismal start to 2024, with 267 “major incidents” — incidents that delayed 50 trains or more apiece — during the first four months of the year, the worst year’s start since early 2018, when the MTA was still recovering from the previous year’s “summer of hell.” Ninety-one of those service disruptions resulted from police or medical episodes, or track trespassing, showing that disorder repels passengers by disrupting service in addition to making that service less pleasant. 

The MTA should also experiment more boldly with flexible fares and bonus fares. Starting in 2022, OMNY users who pay for 12 rides within a week get additional rides after that for free; the MTA should introduce a similar system for monthly rides. Such a bonus would have two salutary results: It would reward the transit system’s most frequent riders, who tend to be hourly workers who can’t work from home, and it would encourage people to ride trains more often, adding an extra element of public safety through crowds. 

The MTA should be more consistent about providing pre-COVID volumes of express service. A good start is the greater frequency of trips between Midtown and JFK Airport that the year-old Grand Central Madison (East Side Access) terminal affords; if you’re at the airport (or, rather at the airport-adjacent Jamaica AirTrain stop), and you’re not picky about whether you want to go to Grand Central or Penn Station, you now enjoy subway-like levels of frequency for just the price of a $5-$7 CityTicket, a big improvement in both reliability and price from just a few years ago. 

The MTA must someday wrest control of both its operating and its capital costs, so that it does not face multi-billion-dollar operating and capital deficits in a few years as costs grow faster than revenues.

The MTA and the City can also improve bus service, a handy way for people to get around without touching the Manhattan core. Bus speeds, at an average 8.1 mph, exactly match where they were in April 2019 — and bus ridership remains below 60% of normal.

The MTA might experiment with a lower bus fare relative to the subway fare. The City, too, can continue dedicating more road space to dedicated bus lanes, well-enforced via the MTA’s new on-board cameras, which can issue tickets to double-parked cars and other violators blocking bus routes. 

Longer-term, the MTA should go forward with its major capital projects, including the expansion of the Second Avenue Subway north (hopefully, eventually, to the east Bronx), as well as its Interborough Express project to connect central-south Brooklyn through central-eastern Queens, via a light-rail line that doesn’t touch Manhattan.

To accomplish these goals, addressing the suspension of congestion pricing is less important than addressing the reason the MTA needed $1 billion in annual congestion-pricing revenues in the first place, despite multiple existing revenue streams that keep up with inflation and economic growth: The MTA must someday wrest control of both its operating and its capital costs, so that it does not face multi-billion-dollar operating and capital deficits in a few years as costs grow faster than revenues. Otherwise, the agency will continue to expend political capital asking for a brand-new source of revenue every half-decade or so. Accordingly, the MTA should also secure work-rule changes in future union contracts, so that workers can perform duties in line with what customers want and need. For example, as it gradually automates its subway lines, the MTA could task the conductor with walking up and down open-gangway train cars continuously, calling in any disorder or danger to police to address on board further down the line. 

If none of this sounds gee-whiz glamorous, exciting or new, that’s because it’s not. Just getting the basics right can go a long way. Every time someone decides to take the subway to Manhattan one random weekday instead of working from home is a victory, and every time someone working from home decides to take the bus from one part of Queens to another, or from one part of Brooklyn to another, to move beyond their immediate walkable neighborhood and try a new restaurant or visit a new store, is also a victory. Workers with flexible hours and workspaces can and will figure out what they want to do with their transit system as long as the transit system is serving them, now that many of them have a newfound choice in whether, or how often, to ride.