COVID-19 wreaks havoc on New York City’s subway system

Experiencing the New York City subway is unlike any other transportation experience in the United States.

With 421 stations (the largest number of public transit subway stations of any system in the world), 6,600 subway cars, and an average of 5 million riders on any given weekday in normal circumstances, it is hard to ignore the fact that all eyes would be on such a system amid a global pandemic like COVID-19.

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Subway entrance to the L train on the corner of Metropolitan Ave and Graham Ave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo By: Devin Hance

Within weeks of the pandemic sweeping New York City, ridership on the subways fell by 60%. 

“We projected a $4 billion impact to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) by the end of the year and that is without accounting for the expected collapse of the more than $6 billion in state and local taxes dedicated to the MTA,” shared Patrick Foye, chairman and Chie Executive Officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

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Bar graph of subway ridership data from March 1st to March 31st. Graph created by: Devin Hance | Data sourced from: MTA

When built in the 19th century, the subway system in New York City was looked at as a way to grow the city and spread out the population from Lower Manhattan and beyond. 

Fast forward to 2020, and mass transit for massive crowds strongly conflicts with a deadly virus that lurks among a populated city. 

What exactly goes into operating such a system? 

“There are about 40,000 people that work in New York City transit. That is like an army. It dwarfs just about every other government agency in the United States. All of those people are waking up every morning and doing all sorts of things. There is a whole department that just figures out who is coming in to operate the subways every day. You have conductors, people collecting the money, the people who are cleaning the stations, and so on,’ explains Phillip Mark Plotch, author of “Last Subway”.

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Last Subway: The Long Wait for the Next Train in New York City. Book by Philip Plotch. Photo by: Devin Hance

His book Last Subway focuses on many aspects of transit services in NYCincluding why New York City’s subway system has often been seen as unreliable, overcrowded, and uncomfortable. His work puts a magnifying glass on the operations of the subway system from the last three centuries. 

“I didn’t set out to write about history. I find it much more interesting to write about the future and what we need to be doing about the future but what I realized is, you can’t figure out what to do about future problems or current problems, unless you understand the past,” Plotch explains.

In reading Plotch’s book, one can learn about some of the biggest problems the New York City subway system has faced and what has been done to overcome those tribulations. 

A deadly virus does not make for a fun equation for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the largest public transit authority in the United State. COVID-19 is unlike anything to hit the subway system since its start in the 19th century. 

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An L train pulls up to the Graham Ave stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo by: Devin Hance

If you look back in history, some of MTA’s biggest crises involved bankruptcy, natural disasters, and the tragic events of the September 11 attacks. 

All these events led to one major problematic outcome: ridership declining. A decline in ridership was immediate when the COVID-19 virus hit New York. 

According to the MTA, in a normal year, passenger fares account for about half of the MTA’s annual budget, or about $8 billion. Ridership falling, regardless of the cause, is a painful problem for the MTA to have.

 The subway system is an expensive beast to keep operating. It is one that requires hefty funds for lengthy projects and ongoing maintenance. 

“We don’t know the long-term effects of COVID-19. We don’t know yet if fewer people are going to want to be in New York. We just don’t know how bad it’s going to be, but it ranks up there with one of the worst things that have hit New York City,” explains Phillip Plotch. 

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A masked man waits for his train in an empty Midtown Manhattan subway station. Photo by: Devin Hance.

Foye requested substantial federal aid at the level of the MTA revenue losses back in early March when the pandemic was hitting its peak infection in the city. 

“This is a national disaster that requires a national response. We asked Congress to step up again and deliver for the system that is the lifeblood of New York City and the engine of the region’s economic future,” Foye said. 

When questioned about how he and the MTA came up with the $4 billion federal aid request, Foye broke down the math.

“The $4 billion assumes this trend in ridership declining is annualized. Clearly, ridership is going to be depressed during the duration of the pandemic and for some period thereafter. On the buses and subways, we have fare revenue of about $4.9 billion, on Metro-North and Long Island Railroad, a total of $1.5 billion between them, and then a couple of billion of spare revenue. Metro-North is down 90%, point nine times $750 million, the numbers add up. But that is an annualized number and it also includes about $300 million of increased operating expense because we’re disinfecting MTA workplaces, including subway stations and yards and bus depots, etc., stations twice a night, disinfecting subway cars, buses, Long Island Railroad, Metro-North and paratransit vehicles plus as I said, transit worker workplaces,” he states. 

Foye’s outlook is that that even 4 billion worth of relief still won’t be enough. In a board meeting with the MTA, he explained that the MTA has “pivoted from a pre-pandemic plan for growth and investment to a post-pandemic fight for survival.” 

Even if a vaccine were to arise, fear is still a factor for NYC residents and tourists when it comes to underground transportation.

“It’s tough because initially people probably thought the subway was spreading the disease because New York was hit harder than anywhere else in the country. People who operate the MTA were not sure if they were contributing to making the disease worse. It’s difficult to provide service if you think you’re hurting the community, but on the other hand, it is such an important service for so many essential workers in New York,” Plotch says.

The pandemic not only took the lives of over 100 MTA staff but has also caused moments that will stay marked in history forever including the first time in its 115-year history that the entire subway system was deliberately shut down.

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MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye addresses media at 96th street station in New York, United States on May 06, 2020. In order to mitigate coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic MTA starts overnight cleaning of all subway cars, buses and subway stations by closing subways from 1 till 5 AM for the first time in history.
Photo by Lev Radin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

May 62020, marked the first overnight closure in which the largest cleaning and disinfecting program ever attempted in MTA history rook place. 

“On the first night, closure of the system enabled us to clean and disinfect every car in service and while providing alternative transportation overnight. This massive effort is designed to protect the health and safety of our customers and employees while ensuring continued transportation for the essential workforce who are heroes of this pandemic,” said Foye. 

The question is, when will a return to normal ridership ever happen, if ever? Will fear continue to keep riders away? 

“I think ridership will bounce back, but I think what we see on a train now, what you see on the train, are the people who have to ride the train. It shows a snapshot of the city. It’s the people who can’t afford to take a Lyft or Uber. They can’t work from home. Even if there is a fear for a certain class of people, it won’t matter. Folks will need to ride,” says New York resident Iggy Saldana.

Saldana, a full-time lawyer, has been a New York City resident for the last 30-years.

“I can’t live here and have the subway not working effectively. This is the primary means of transportation for millions of people. You all of a sudden think to yourself, why do I live here? People are realizing that there is no hiccup in their work while working from home. Why are we on top of each other, paying these crazy prices? If that doesn’t matter, then why would people do it?” Saldana says. 

The pandemic and opinions like Saldana’s have left the MTA in a place where they have no choice but to respond to how to keep their riders and employees as safe as possible.

As New York City started reopening in phases, the MTA continued to take action in different ways. During phase 1, new floor markings and signage with directional cues were installed throughout the subway stations as reminders to social distance.

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Floor signage is placed all over subway station platforms to remind people to keep their distance. Photo by: Devin Hance

During phase 2, masks were made available at certain MTA station booths for those who needed one and ad signage inside the subway carts was placed reminding folks to social distance.

Monday, July 6th marked phase 3 of reopening. Subway and buses began operating with full service but remained closed between 1 AM-5 AM for disinfecting.

During those overnight hours, free express and local buses are offered to passengers. 

Masks are still mandatory on public transit and riders can spot other additions that have been made underground including PPE vending machines in select stations, hand sanitizer dispensers, and new technology such as electrostatic sprayers, antimicrobial biostats, UV lights, being tested as a means of sanitization. 

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Yellow hand sanitizer dispensers built by the MTA can be spotted throughout subway stations across NYC. Photo by: Devin Hance. 

The MTA continues to keep ridership stats available to up to date to help people understand how many people are using the transportation services in and around New York City.

As of September 2020, ridership remains down over 70% compared to 2019 data. 

When questioned about if the efforts to keep riders safe have been effective so far, New York City resident and Department of Education employee Andrea Kim is not shy to offer her thoughts.  

“I think every true New Yorker wants to take the subway again, but people are going to need events or reasons to travel. There is nothing open at the moment anywhere. Until that is a thing again, I don’t think people will start coming in.”

She continues with her predictions for the future. 

“There is a likelihood that the subway system won’t be operating twenty-four hours. We take the subways when we need to go to work or a gathering. With all that in mind, there will be less ridership if work goes toward more remote. The MTA is going to have to do a cost-benefit analysis and figure out the deficit that has been created amid the pandemic. They’re going to have to cut back, whether it is on staff or the availability of trains,” Kim says. 

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People in masks ride in an F line subway train on July 20, 2020 in New York City . Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

MTA is already assessing how to cut back in 2021 and while all this is happening, MTA employees want to make sure that their safety is being looked at as a priority as well.

“Enough is not being done overall. I believe we need new leadership in both the MTA and TWU Local 100. This pandemic showed a slow response to ensure the safety of the employees and that is unacceptable coming from the ones that are supposed to ensure out safety is #1 priority,” Danny Cruz, MTA bus operator, shares.

When it comes to the future, the reality is that there is no answer available yet as to how ridership will continue to be impacted. 

“It’s hard to think about where we are going to be in two weeks, let alone two months or twenty years. The most interesting part about this all is that we are quite literally smack dab in the middle of history. You’re living right smack dab in the middle of a chapter where there is great uncertainty,” says Plotch. 

And uncertainty is the only word that can truly sum up what is happening underground. 

For a closer look at COVID-19’s impact on the greatest subway system in the world, follow this Twitter list on all the handles associated with the concrete jungle:

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