NYC’s Subway Used to Be for Everyone. What’s Going to Happen Now?

The subway is different from every other transit system in the country. If people think that's no longer true, it might not get the funding it needs.
December 22, 2020, 2:00pm
Gary Hershorn via Getty Images

When talking about public transportation usage in the United States, there's New York City and then there's everywhere else. During pre-COVID times, one out of every three transit trips in the U.S. took place on a New York City subway or bus, according to data from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) factbook, despite having just 2.5 percent of the country's population. 


The newest stimulus package appears to reflect these proportions. Although we're still waiting on exact details, New York Senator Chuck Schumer tweeted that the deal secures "more than $4 billion in relief" for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority which runs the city's subway, buses, and two commuter rails. According to the Washington Post, the stimulus package includes a grand total of $14 billion for public transportation, meaning the MTA gets about 30 percent of the public transportation pot.

That's good news for the MTA, although not as much good news as it was hoping for. But, beyond the agency's predicted $8 billion shortfall thanks to long-term ridership loss—which is on top of its pre-existing debt that was threatening the agency's long-term viability even before anyone had used the term "social distancing"—there is a larger existential threat for the New York City subway looming. That is the possibility that the New York City transportation system, and the subway in particular, stops being quite so different from all the others in this country.

What makes the New York City subway unique in the U.S. transportation landscape is that virtually everyone in the city uses it. In a city with vast economic inequality, three institutions chip away at those barriers: the library system, parks, and the subway. Arguably, the subway does so to the fullest degree, bringing all New Yorkers together in the most literal sense. It is the only transportation system in the country providing round-the-clock frequent, fast service (a 2017 New York City comptroller report found subway commuters actually have a slightly higher average personal income than the city average; bus commuters have much lower personal income, a point I'll return to in a bit). Of course, New Yorkers use the subway not out of some altruistic sense of civic engagement but for selfish reasons. It is typically the fastest way to get where you need to go. Even for wealthier people with the means to pay for other forms of transportation, speed often beats comfort.


These two facts—that the subway is both universally used and a pretty damn good transportation system by American standards—are tightly connected. When the subway stops functioning well, as it did in 2017, it is an affront to the entire city. People of all walks of life demand better. This doesn't happen to the same degree in other U.S. cities, where public transportation ridership is heavily segmented by race and income and most households own at least one car. Across the country, one in four transit riders is Black, according to APTA, even though Black people account for one in eight U.S. residents, and public transit riders are more likely to have a household income of less than $15,000 a year than the general population (the link between income and transit ridership has been weakening as denser cities with better transit access become more expensive, pushing lower income riders to neighborhoods without good transit; Slate found that, broadly speaking, zip code-level income and population density are roughly equally correlated with car ownership rates). The more public transit systems are used by marginalized populations socioeconomically and politically, the worse it is for the transit system itself and the people who use it. 

This is why the pandemic could alter New York's relationship with the subway in the long term. The longer wealthier New Yorkers work from home—or leave the city altogether—the more the New York City subway will risk falling into the same not-my-problem apathy vortex other cities experience with their transit systems, where residents may vote to fund better transit but only insofar as it will coax other drivers to stop driving. Or, as the infamous and evergreen Onion headline from 2000 put it, "98 Percent of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others."


In fact, this dynamic occurs in New York City itself. Not on the subways, but on the bus system. Before the pandemic, there were 1.77 million trips per weekday on average on the city's buses, but as the city comptroller's office found, those trips were disproportionately made by New Yorkers with lower incomes, less education, elderly people, single parents, people of color, and workers we now call "essential" (the report doesn't use that term because it predates the pandemic). These demographics are virtually universal on bus systems across the country; Boston city council president Kim Janey told the New York Times last year, "Think about who is using our buses: It’s Black people, folks who live in communities where there are deep, deep concentrations of poverty." 

And it is no coincidence that the city's buses have gotten slower and slower over the years, with average speeds pre-pandemic around six miles per hour in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Efforts to speed up buses by giving them dedicated lanes routinely meet fierce resistance from car-driving locals; one such effort in Queens is currently blocked while it's being fought in court. As a result of the slower speeds, ridership tanked, because most anyone who could afford an alternative means of transportation went for it. This was especially pronounced during off-peak hours.

When the subway got slower, New Yorkers learned that Governor Andrew Cuomo controlled the MTA and demanded he fix it. When the buses got slower, transportation advocacy and research groups such as TransitCenter launched a noble but often lonely fight yielding genuine improvements but a far cry from the outrage over the subway's poor service. The subway received $634 million in emergency funding. The buses? They're still crawling.

Similarly, the MTA got another $4 billion from Congress because everyone knows the New York City subway is the lifeblood of its economic activity. After all, everyone uses it. But what if more and more people start to question that premise? 

I'm not predicting this is the future, but It is at least within the realm of possibility working from home will be the norm for years rather than months. Perhaps we will see a super-charged version of what has already been occurring for years on nights and weekends, when even the subway has experienced falling ridership thanks to post-recession service cuts and constant work schedules that make the subway neither fast nor convenient when compared to alternatives.

If that does indeed happen, what made the New York City subway special will cease to be true. It will no longer be one of the few public spaces left where rich people rub elbows with poor people on a regular basis. It will be just another public service the wealthy avoid while opting for private ones, setting the stage for further disinvestment in yet another public service. And when it comes time for Congress to decide once again what it wants to fund and why, the voices clamoring for public transit funding will be further from the halls of power than they are today, shouting over the constant drone of lobbyists from, say, airline companies, which got more money in this stimulus package than all of public transportation in the country even though it serves far fewer travelers and employs fewer people. One possible reason for that? Congresspeople fly a lot.