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.


  1. This was really interesting. I admit that when I can, I walk. Walking is faster than driving and cheaper than the subway. Plus although you mentioned great upgrades in certain parts of the system, the are isolated projects that gave increased value to a group of riders. Riders in the outer boroughs will never touch these improvements and thus see no added value even though the fare continues to go up.


    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m partial to walking and cycling myself, especially when it’s nice outside. Though I think that there needs to be movement on projects outside of Manhattan (the Utica Avenue Subway, Staten Island Light Rail and Triborough RX are great places to start) it’s a little unfair to say that riders in the outer boroughs will never touch these improvements. Consider: The new subway stop to Hudson Yards will eventually (once the development is complete) be one of the busiest in the system. Plenty of people from places outside of Manhattan are going to benefit from getting to their jobs with ease. The same is true for the Second Avenue Subway. I know college students and folks who work on the UES who live in Brooklyn that now can get to the UES without having to walk from the 6 train. The Second Avenue Subway saves them up to 10-15 minutes each way. Also, the entire city benefits from having a less crowded 4,5,6.


      1. Very true. I stand corrected. Still, what usually happens is improvements are concentrated in Manhattan, usually with the argument that they will touch more people, which is completely true in one sense. But in another sense the stark difference between the quality of stations between Manhattan and the other boroughs continues to increase. People may end their ride at great stations that make their lives easier but they begin in some pretty crappy stations. While it may not be cost effective to completely remodel each one, some basic small improvements would go a long way.


      2. Yes, I agree. There have been some big improvements at key outer borough hubs like Coney Island and Jay Street MetroTech but except along the J train (Chambers Street is the worst subway station int the city) many subway stations, especially in the Bronx, have been neglected. I’m going to put up a post about this at some point over the next few weeks, but the subways are basically New York’s busiest public common. All of us spend hours each week traveling through the subway and its stations. The new Second Avenue Stations and the Hudson Yards station should really be the standard.


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