COVID-19 Compromised NYC Public Transit but the City Can Modernize Infrastructure Using Existing Systems

America’s largest transit system has stood the test of time, more than doubling the size of the second largest transit system in the U.S. (Washington D.C.) and serving 10 times the amount of passengers per day than any other U.S. city. The original New York City subway — serving Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx — began operations in October 1904 while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) — a public agency overseeing all city-owned buses, trolleys, and subways — was formed in June 1953; over the past few generations, this public transit system has ignited New York’s prestigious global status — from Coney Island in Brooklyn to Wall Street in Lower Manhattan to Broadway in Midtown to Harlem in Upper Manhattan to The Bronx and beyond.

Subway Spurred Economic and Cultural Dominance

Despite many of the modern complaints of the outdated infrastructure, the NYC subway has been regarded as an engineering marvel with its underground transportation development that allowed for the rise of the economic and cultural superpower in this extremely densely populated region.

NYC’s underground transit system has allowed for major economic development in Manhattan (Pixabay)

NYC has remained America’s most populous city since 1790, and the population density of over 28,000 people per square mile dwarfs every other American city. Approximately 1.63 million people reside in the 22.7-square mile region of Manhattan Island, which equates to 67,000 people per square mile.

The extremely dense population — with people working and living in high-rise buildings all around the city — requires a strong underground public transportation infrastructure, or residents/visitors fear lengthy traffic-ridden commutes. MTA’s system — ranked as the top American public transit system for multiple generations — is designed to handle an enormous volume of passengers, with an annual ridership in 2018 of 2.658 billion, equaling an average single weekday ridership of 8.6 million.

10 different subway lines intersect at Times Square station in Midtown (Pixabay)

The underground development of the subway has fueled the skyscraper development throughout Manhattan and enabled large numbers of workers to efficiently move between various neighborhoods at a relatively low cost. Access to transportation has helped the city survive various disasters, from the fiscal troubles of the 1970s to the September 11th terrorist attacks. The subway has withstood the test of time and has remained the most effective way to move large numbers of people around the city.

Pandemic Has Devastated MTA

Now, COVID-19 has compromised the entire MTA public transit system as we know it. The precipitous drop of total subway ridership from March through August 2020, particularly when comparing this year’s daily numbers to the same day in 2019, has been staggering:

People have shied away from using the subway since shelter-in-place orders came in March (Data from MTA)

For five months and counting, subway ridership has declined between 70–90%. Additionally, overall ridership has significantly dropped in MTA’s other public transit operations — Buses, Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, Access-A-Ride, and Bridges and Tunnels — leading to major financial issues for America’s largest rapid transit system. The authority projects a $10 billion deficit through the end of 2021, as the MTA already faces a mounting debt load of over $45 billion, mostly used to pay for upgraded infrastructure and services.

A system that originally served over 8 million rides per day has not served even 25% of last year’s ridership, causing a serious drop in fare revenues; add in the lower tax revenues from sluggish NYC real estate market, vehicle registrations, and petroleum services and the MTA described its situation as a “financial calamity”, with several billions of dollars requested for bailout funding:


Car Use Not A Viable Solution

While public transit remains in peril for the foreseeable future, other forms of transport come with major roadblocks. Though residents have opted to purchase cars at a higher rate than 2019 — largely because of safety and comfort of using own vehicle — car ownership comes at a steep price in New York City — with tolls, high parking fees, high petroleum prices, registration fees, annual inspection fees, insurance, gas and so on. Add in the high risks of driving in such a densely populated city — and the repercussions of traffic congestion and urban pollution — and car ownership likely will not be a viable option going forward.

Additionally, car rentals in NYC have gone for almost $300 per day during the pandemic, another unsustainable option for most citizens. Uber and Lyft — facing a potentially fatal blow in California with classifying drivers as employees — may soon face similar challenges in New York City.

Micromobility Faces Major Challenges

Although shared micro-mobility has taken off globally in recent years, early data suggests New York City may have difficulties with mass adoption. CitiBike NYC — with over 950 active stations scattered across all five boroughs — is a privately owned bicycle sharing system that has remained in operation since 2013. Theoretically, the allure of open-air transportation socially distanced from others should provide an appealing option for New Yorkers but the data suggests otherwise:

Bike share ridership has remained at modest levels during the pandemic (Citi Bike Data)

Ridership still has not reached 2018 or 2019 levels — even during the warm summer months. Furthermore, people have opted for much longer rides during the pandemic, reaching over double the average trip duration as Summer 2019, suggesting that riders have opted to use this service as a means of leisure and head-clearing activities, not purposeful commutes to get from Point A to Point B.

Trip duration for CitiBike usage has skyrocketed during the pandemic.

Because of the extremely dense population along with the tight proximity of New York City blocks — particularly in Manhattan — most CitiBike rides can only be used in the perimeter of the city — either on the Hudson River or East River Esplanades. The extremely condensed make-up of the city caused Revel — a Brooklyn-based moped sharing service — to suspend operations in New York City in late July 2020 after two deaths from riders using the moped, as it was already facing several lawsuits at the beginning of 2020 (Revel returned to NYC streets on Thursday, August 28th, with new safety measures).

Impact of Transit on Economy

The lack of public transit use has significantly impacted the New York City economy; the city’s greatest value is the conglomeration of various gatherings — from work to entertainment to dining and more. With over 2,800 businesses permanently shutting down, Broadway closing for the remainder of the year, thousands of empty hotels, museum directors fearing permanent closures, and a precipitous drop in real estate and construction, the city’s identity has been compromised. Even though NYC has done an admirable job of containing the virus over the past three months, the dense makeup of the city has caused severe economic and cultural damage.

With no end in sight for COVID-19, a mass exodus out of NYC has begun for the foreseeable future, leading to a ripple effect all around the city. Some city experts project the city’s recovery period to last a decade and for good reason. In 2019, a record 67 million visitors entered New York City to contribute to a $70 billion local tourism industry. Consequently, Governor Andrew Cuomo has imposed a 14-day quarantine for any visitor from 19 U.S. states; the U.S. has prohibited entry into the country from most European countries and China, both major contributors to tourism in New York.

“A city that never sleeps” has suddenly come to a standstill, as the compromised movements of people, goods, and services have affected the very qualities that made New York City such an attractive place to so many people.

Opportunities to Modernize Infrastructure

While the deadly airborne virus and New York City streets that are “more congested than ever” present the city with some major challenges to remain afloat, it has several building blocks of strong transportation infrastructure to proceed with. Underground subway systems, smooth train and bus navigation from surrounding regions into the heart of the city, a bike share system, and wide sidewalks for pedestrians to navigate all align with the city’s goals of improving urban transport while reducing carbon footprint.

Thus, New York City does not need to change its identity. Instead, the city should focus on modernizing its infrastructure by integrating from existing transit systems and current city setup.

Take a look at the most ridden stations from CitiBike NYC…they actually are in New Jersey and near the hubs for public transit, notably the PATH.

Additionally, ridership of CitiBike NYC suggests most adults between the ages of 25–44 have used the bike share services during peak commute times, which resembles over 30% of NYC’s current population.

CitiBike rides have predominantly been used by the age 25–44 demographic during peak work hours in the morning and evening.

If the majority of the population is physically able to ride micromobility, the city can encourage more transportation within the densely populous regions if they can convert many of these smaller roads into bike lanes.

With outdoor dining taking root and extending beyond the sidewalks and into the roads in many places, this current period presents a unique opportunity to change transportation methods within the context of the city. Bike lanes only require half the length of car lanes, and many of these NYC shops already face incredibly tight real estate space outside of their buildings.

Outdoor dining has extended all the way to the roads during the restricted reopening of New York City (Flickr)

Not only will this de-incentivize cars from riding in the city — a major contributor to traffic congestion and urban pollution — the city can better utilize its already-tight roads by expanding outdoor activity in the region, which can create a safer environment for the riders, pedestrians, and restauranteers, who have expressed legitimate concerns with cars riding on streets outside of their shops.

If roads are already crammed and indoor seating has been compromised for the foreseeable future, why shouldn’t NYC build on its existing setup to modernize the infrastructure and better incorporate micromobility into its setup?

Certainly, New York faces its fair share of challenges by integrating a big bike system in the middle of Times Square or by Penn Station right in the heart of Midtown. Docked stations may cause challenges and inconveniences for the riders but dockless low speed vehicles — if properly implemented — have a chance to work; the city is launching plans for an e-scooter ride sharing pilot program from March 2021, with initial applications submitted by October 15th. The city’s efforts to incorporate scooters should come with a better layout for riding the vehicles. Otherwise, scooter companies may face a similar fate to Revel with the extremely high pedestrian traffic in the city,

NYC thrives on its humanity and accessibility to various different environments within a tight pocketed area. Without changing the identity of the city, New York City officials can expand on the outdoor seating concept by preventing cars from accessing several different regions in the city along re-designing transit paths for increased micro-mobility use within the cities.

MTA’s public transit system will not and should not go away. The underground system allowed for the massive overall development of the city, so it should focus on making incremental improvements in that area. Instead, if the city is really serious about improving the urban transport system and utilizing new mobility solutions, it should continue to build off of the expanded outdoor seating concept by designing micro-mobility routes, which would prevent cars from entering more roads within the city.