Unmasked and unafraid, New Yorkers used to jump onto crowded subway trains every day. Our commutes were hectic but dependable (for the most part.) Rushing to the train and being sandwiched between strangers was all part of the NYC experience.
Now, after living through six months of a pandemic and the resulting shutdown, that part of our city lives is drastically different. Most of us haven't taken the subway since March and many of us have taken to bicycles, scooters and cars to get around. These alternatives, especially the electric ones, are likely to last, according to transportation experts.
Before the pandemic hit, NYC transit carried 5.5 million straphangers every weekday but by mid-April, New Yorkers were no longer traveling to work, except for essential workers, since everything—offices, retail, restaurants and other businesses were totally shuttered.
Subway ridership dropped by 96 percent to just over 200,000—which could be the lowest number in a century, according to a July report by the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation and Sam Schwartz Engineering.
Bus ridership was down by 78 percent and vehicular traffic fell by 65 percent. Citi Bike ridership was 70 percent lower in April than it had been the previous year.
With travel essentially impossible and workers stuck at home, streets became quieter and parks filled up with housebound New Yorkers looking to get fresh air and stretch out. Seeing that, New York City promised to close 100 miles of streets to traffic near parks and in more densely populated areas so that its residents could safely walk, bike, and play on them as they enjoyed the outdoors.
For a while, everything had stopped and people merely walked their neighborhoods. But once the government began reopening sectors of the economy over the course of the summer, New Yorkers had to go back to work—and that's when we started to see a massive shift in how we get around.
A boom time for buses and bikes
Even though subway ridership has increased—it was only down 75 percent last month compared to 96 percent in April—the MTA is still taking a beating. The agency says that it is currently experiencing $200 million in revenue losses every week because of low ridership and the loss of state and local taxes and subsidies.
"It is an unprecedented crisis that eclipses even the Great Depression’s impact on its ridership and finances," it said in a letter to suppliers in September.
The MTA is asking Washington for $12 billion through the end of 2021 to avoid cutting service, fare hikes and layoffs.
While the subway is hurting, other modes of transportation are blossoming. Those going back into work have been seeking alternatives like biking and taking the bus.
According to the NYU/Sam Schwartz report, bicycle shops experienced a demand boom this summer, reportedly selling bikes at rates three times greater than normal—levels not seen since the transit strike in the 1980s. Citi Bike ridership began to skyrocket, too. It saw a single day with over 94,000 rides in August and then broke that record on September 12, with 103,139 rides in a single day. It's worth noting that Citi Bike also offered free access for essential workers during this time, too.
And although ridership was down at first, buses have become a reliable mode of transportation with less congestion to deal with thanks to fewer cars on the roads and 20 more miles of bus lanes that were added over the summer, and they offer a more spaced out configuration for riders who just hop on and off quickly. Plus, the MTA offered free bus fare over the summer to help riders.
"It was a shot in the arm for bus ridership, which even outpaced subway ridership," according to Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance. "It ran more reliably than it had in several decades. The bus was something you could count on and in the same way, that shifted to bikes. There was a bike boom and a bus boom."
Revel, the moped company, expanded its service area to Upper Manhattan, Lower Manhattan and the South Bronx over the summer as a response to the pandemic, but it also saw a major increase—in March it recorded an average of 2,544 trips per day but in May, it saw 7,284. On May 30, it actually saw 12,713 trips, which more than doubled the March pre-pandemic peak.
New Yorkers also started buying cars thinking that it'd be a safer and reliable way to get around, and the numbers showed it: between April and May, Port Authority crossings increased by 55 percent and daily vehicle miles traveled increased by 79 percent.
"There here may be an overwhelming influx of vehicles without short and long-term measures to reduce traffic and encourage mass transit," the study says.
"The fear of public transportation is unfounded but it's an emotional response, so people have thought to take other means of transportation like getting into cars, which adds more congestion," Joshi said. "We've seen people getting back into cars at a much higher rate than getting back on public transportation."
A light on the horizon
So, what does all this mean for the future of transportation here in NYC?
Experts are reading the writing on the wall and believe that subway ridership will return but not until schools are back in session full-time and offices are repopulated. And no one knows when that will be exactly, since the pandemic is still happening and a second wave could hit.
"We'll eventually go back to the March 12 subway, but not for a long time because we'll have different work hours—there's not so much of an emphasis on the nine-to-five," said Meera Joshi of Sam Schwartz. "We're all incredibly anxious watching what will happen in terms of MTA funding. There's no way to minimize the necessity of the subway (and the bus networks) for the many people who never got a chance to work from home and won't be anytime soon. They're the lifeblood of the city."
Pearlstein mentioned a report that came out in July that looked at what the MTA service could look like with cuts at 50 percent. He said the MTA would have to cut 10,000 jobs and "enormous" amounts of service, with trains coming every 15 minutes and buses every 30 minutes.
"The problem is that you drive away riders," he said. "They'll find other ways to get around. That's why we call it a death spiral. The fate of the whole city is riding on whether people can get to work."
With this possibility in mind and seeing the trends that have surfaced during the pandemic, experts say that NYC will see a greater expansion of cycling and electric bikes, mopeds and scooters in a way that it's never seen before.
"Electric is a light in the horizon," Joshi said. "The future will be more electric and more congested—the level of each depends on our leadership and the decisions they make."
The New York City Council actually just voted in June to approve a dockless bike and scooter pilot program in the outer boroughs that is planned to launch in March 2021.
New Yorkers need more sustainable and safe ways to commute and get around during this pandemic–and that is especially true for our essential delivery workers who deserve our gratitude and our support for keeping this city running even through the darkest days of this crisis,” New York Council speaker Corey Johnson said in a statement. “E-bikes and scooters are going to be a major part of our city’s transit future, and I’m proud of the council’s work to ensure that future arrives safely and equitably.”
Lime, Link, Bird and Spin have said they'd apply for permits under the pilot program, according to Reuters.
With the influx of more bicyclists and small vehicles on the streets of New York City, experts see the need and possible addition of more bus lanes, bike lanes and open streets to accommodate them. Allowing more connection between neighborhoods means a healthier and more equitable system for all New Yorkers and a way to continue getting to work during these difficult times.
It may be challenging, however, to make these major infrastructure changes thanks to the major budget cuts the city is undergoing and to the increase in private cars on the roads.
Of course, all of these depend on lawmakers. Experts say by bringing in congestion pricing, it will raise revenue and deter all of these drivers from coming into the city via car. The city's congestion pricing plan is still held up at the federal level.
With that in mind, New York City is going to see a "transportation renaissance," according to Joshi. She thinks in the long term, we'll have both broader bike and bus networks and possibly more open streets and public space now that we've seen how important they are.
"There's been a culture shift."