In 2016, something remarkable happened. The New York City Subway experienced a slight decline in ridership. The nation’s busiest subway (by far) went from 1.762 billion rides in 2015 to 1.756 billion rides in 2016, about a .3 percent dip. The drop has the New York Times and Transit chairman Fernando Ferrer opining about the rise of car sharing services like UBER. Out of context, a slight decline of .03% shouldn’t be cause for concern, that’s about six million rides; one day’s worth of trips. With context, however, New York’s transit system is on the brink of either glory of disaster.
On one hand, the past few years have seen remarkable successes. Subway ridership is up about 10% since 2009, when the unemployment crisis caused a significant dip. Transit added the first significant system milage, with 4 brand new stations, for the first time since the Archer Avenue extension in 1988. Despite some early mishaps, the stations are gleaming and the new service has been a hit with riders. The Fulton Center finally opened. Subway stations also received WiFi and cell phone service at the end of 2016, and countdown clocks are finally scheduled to come to the B Division (lettered lines) by 2018.
On the flipside however, bus ridership has been declining for years. The aforementioned capital projects were completed years behind schedule and at the highest per-mile price tags the world has ever seen. Plans for much needed future extensions are still up in the air. Most importantly, however, is the fact that Subway service has seen a noticeable decline in reliability. Trains are slow, inconsistent and late. Stations are crowded and dirty. Weekend re-routings make life a game of roulette. The looming L train shutdown threatens to make all of this 3x worse in just two years.
It’s true that some of the 6 million people may have switched to Uber, Lyft or other apps. It’s also true that these riders could have used bikes, bikeshare, their own cars or just walked. The point is that declining mass transit service quality is probably the most salient factor in people’s transportation choices. At its best, the Subway is quick, efficient and reliable. If it’s not, then people may find another way to travel.