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NYC subway ridership dropped for the second straight year in 2017

Written by
Clayton Guse

Annual MTA subway ridership dropped for the second consecutive year in 2017 as the authority reckoned with widespread delays and equipment failures.

According to data presented in an MTA Transit Committee meeting on Tuesday, approximately 1.727 billion trips were taken on the subway over the course of 2017, marking a drop of nearly 30 million from the year prior, when 1.756 billion trips were taken on the service. In 2016, the MTA saw its first dip in annual subway ridership since 2009, following a record-high 1.762 billion trips taken in 2015. 

The dip in ridership coincides with a sharp drop in quality of service on the subway. A report from the city’s Independent Budget Office published last October found that weekday delays on the subway more than tripled in May 2017 compared to May 2012. Service interruptions, track fires and derailments became so commonplace last year that Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the MTA in June, and a month later the agency’s newly reappointed chairman Joe Lhota released an $836 billion Subway Action Plan that aimed to bring immediate changes and upgrades to the system.

But even with the new plan in place, it will still take years to fix the deep-rooted issues that cripple the subway. Much of the system’s signaling infrastructure is more than a half-century old. The C train is still running trains that debuted in 1964, the oldest of any subway system on the planet. The MTA is still working to repair the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, most notably the 15-month L train shutdown that’s coming in April 2019. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s worth noting that the drop in ridership in 2017 accounts for less than two percent of the total trips taken, and other factors like the surge of ride-sharing services in New York may also be turning straphangers away from the subway. 

“Despite the small drop, ridership is still near record highs,” said MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek.

Subway ridership boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s, increasing from 929 million annual trips in 1991 to 1.625 billion in 2008. Much of this increase can be attributed to the introduction of the MetroCard in 1997 and a citywide drop in crime. 

Now, the data suggests, aging infrastructure and a growing population is pushing the subway’s capacity to its limit, and the MTA’s primary focus at this point is to bring the system into the 21st century.

Last November, the authority appointed Andy Byford as the new president of New York City Transit, a role that oversees all of the subway, bus and paratransit services across the five boroughs. Byford came into the job with an impressive resume: He’s a 14-year veteran of the London Underground, the former Chief Operating Officer of Sydney’s transit system and the former CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission. 

Earlier this year, Byford laid out four priorities for the city’s transit system: implementing the Subway Action Plan, improving the system’s accessibility, improving the authority’s relationship with its employees and speeding up the city’s buses. 

“Our focus is on delivering better service,” Tarek said. “The Subway Action Plan and the [MTA’s] Capital Plan are the immediate and long-term strategies currently in place for doing that.”

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