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The Subway's Future Hinges on Off-peak Riders

Thursday, May 25, 2023

A new report highlights the impact of the pandemic on public transport systems like New York City’s subway. Ridership has finally reached 2020 levels, but the system is on financial life support.

New York City's public transit system is facing a dire situation as it struggles to recover from the pandemic. Commuting patterns remain unstable, causing a $600 million annual budget gap for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Addressing the crisis, Governor Kathy Hochul allocated an additional $300 million in transit aid, with $35 million specifically designated for improving off-peak services. The pandemic reshaped how people use the subway system, with reduced daily commuting but increased ridership during afternoons and weekends. Advocates and legislators are pushing for better off-peak service for riders, particularly those with non-traditional commuting patterns.

MTA plans for increasing off-peak service as part of a four-phase strategy to address ridership decline after the pandemic. Starting in July, weekend enhancements will be introduced on three subway lines, with further phases focusing on increasing midday and weekday evening service. The MTA's chairman, Janno Lieber, emphasized that the expansion aligns with post-COVID ridership trends and will be funded by newly allocated resources. Similar efforts are being made in other cities, such as San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which will boost night and weekend services for off-peak riders. These changes reflect the need to reallocate resources and attract new ridership. However, experts note that increasing off-peak service alone may not solve the fiscal challenges faced by transit agencies. Additional investments in safety measures and infrastructure are also crucial to rebuilding public trust and making public transit a reliable option in 24-hour cities like New York. The MTA will have access to other sources of funding, including increased employer taxes and congestion pricing, to support its efforts in revitalizing the transit system. A comprehensive approach is needed to ensure riders receive the service they deserve, regardless of the time they choose to travel.

Personal comments

The allocation of additional transit aid and increasing off-peak service demonstrate a proactive approach by the government and the MTA in adapting to changing commuting patterns. This strategy reflects a commitment to better serving non-traditional commuters and attracting new ridership as planned in EU, where public transport has lost between 40-70% of passengers. While this is a step in the right direction, it may not fully address the underlying fiscal challenges faced by NYC's public transit system. Additional investments in safety measures and infrastructure are necessary to rebuild public trust and ensure a reliable transit system, which may require significant financial resources. It is not clear, without further information, that the increased employer tax and congestion charges will cover the amount needed.

Written by Adeleh Mohammadi, 

RISE Mobility & Systems