As the coronavirus took over New York City at the beginning of last year, subway station Adrienne Crespo saw the crowd on the platforms slowly subside. One afternoon, he stopped at West Fourth Street-Washington Square station – typically one of the busiest in its line – and saw only two people boarding. “When I didn’t see anyone during rush hour, I understood. It was really scary. I thought, ‘Wow, this is bad. This is very, very bad,” said Crespo, 49.
A year ago, covid-19 removed almost all passengers from the subway, spread to thousands of workers in the sector in Nova York and plunged North America’s largest public transport agency into its worst financial emergency ever.
Today, passenger numbers have risen again to about a third of their usual levels, from a record low of seven percent from late March to late June. Billion-dollar federal aid has kept the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) afloat. And the agency, which operates the subway, buses and two railway lines, received another $ 6 billion from President Joe Biden’s rescue plan.
But the long-term survival of the MTA depends on the return of passengers and their fares, which make up their largest source of financing. Nearly 40 percent of the agency’s operating revenue comes from tickets, a percentage higher than that of almost any other major US transit system.
Now, as the city’s mass vaccination campaign reaches more people and urban life slowly recovers, public transport officials face a worrying reality: a growing consensus that passenger numbers may not fully return to their pre-levels pandemic, and that the agency will have to remodel and reduce the service to reflect the new travel patterns.
Adapting to a new standard may mean more waiting between trains during rush hour, and a decrease in the circulation of trains bound for the suburbs, where the number of users remains anemic.
Even as the pandemic subsides, some companies are changing workplace rules to make at least part of remote work a permanent option.
Uncertainty makes projections difficult, but an analysis by McKinsey & Co. commissioned by the MTA found that the number of passengers could finally reach 80 percent to 92 percent of pre-pandemic levels – but only by the end of 2024.
“The culture of commuting to work is going to change. People are looking for more flexibility and more options, which improves their quality of life. This is definitely a legacy of the pandemic,” said Kathryn Wylde, president of the influential Partnership for New York City Business group.
Although public health experts generally agree that riding a train and bus is not an important risk factor for exposure to the virus, transit experts say some passengers are likely to stay away, opting for other ways to get around that they resorted to during the pandemic, like car and bicycle.
And some passengers expressed fear after seeing others disrespecting the MTA mask requirement, even though the agency was distributing millions of free units. “It’s difficult for me when people don’t put on the mask, ” said health aide Manil Molina, who has no choice but to take the subway to work.
Transport and economy experts warn that the confluence of factors that cause passengers to turn their backs on public transport risks paralyzing the region’s recovery. A wave of car traffic in Manhattan would cause massive traffic jams, lost productivity and increased air pollution. And, if the number of users does not recover, the agency may return to experiencing a financial crisis.
Before the pandemic, no part of the country relied more on public transport. Eight million people in the New York area – including more than 50 percent of the city’s population – used public transport every day of the week.
“The existential question for the city in the coming years is how to convince people that public transport is safe, so that they can use it again,” said Nick Sifuentes, former executive director of the advocacy group Tri-State Transportation Campaign .
Some will not come back, at least to go to the office. Many large employers have adopted remote work policies that will be maintained. Others are considering setting up satellite offices outside Manhattan and in suburbs closer to the employees’ home, in the hope of offering dedicated work spaces – away from children and cramped apartments – and ensuring shorter commutes, which can even be done on foot.
Less than 50 percent of people working in Manhattan offices in 2019 will return to them in the coming years, according to a recent survey by the Partnership for New York City.
Transit officials recognize that the change in pattern is likely to dictate what kind of system will emerge as the pandemic ends, although they say there are no specific plans. “Morning and afternoon usage is different. We will need to adjust the service to that,” said Patrick J. Foye, president of the MTA.
The pandemic ended what appeared to be an important year for the MTA. After a wave of service disruptions and derailments in 2017 that prompted Governor Andrew Cuomo to declare a state of emergency, the punctuality rate of trains during the week rose to over 80 percent – the best performance in seven years. The number of passengers recovered in 2019, after three years of decline.
In addition, the agency had also just approved its largest spending plan of all time – a $ 54 billion contribution to finally bring the system into the 21st century. It said it would buy more than 1,900 metro cars and 500 buses trams, would add elevators to 70 stations to make the system more accessible, and would replace the outdated metro signaling with a modern network that would put more trains to use, increasing capacity and reducing overcrowding.
But the coronavirus stopped everything. At the MTA headquarters in southern Manhattan, traffic officials set up a situation room 24 hours a day, producing field reports on the sharp drop in the number of users and the rapid change in public health guidelines, while adopting emergency plans to reduce service and even shut down the entire system.
Although they have never taken such a drastic step, the metro service authorities interrupted the service overnight to disinfect the system – a worrying time for a city that prides itself on its 24-hour public transport.
Soon, reports of sick sector officials began to arrive in droves – highlighting the human cost of the crisis. A hotline that the MTA installed for workers to report a positive test result and receive guidance for isolation was overloaded, with about 7,000 to 8,000 calls a day. A year later, thousands of public transport workers fell ill, and more than 140 died.
At the same time, the MTA was rapidly approaching a financial disaster. In April, passengers almost disappeared, draining the vital fare revenue system practically overnight. At the lowest point, about 400,000 of the five and a half million regular daily commuters on the metro were using the system, while on buses the number plummeted to 20 percent of normal. “These were orders of magnitude worse than those of the Great Depression,” according to Foye.
On the subway, Crespo is getting excited about the crowds that are slowly increasing on the platforms, guaranteeing some breath to the system.
Even so, she is concerned – with the increasing number of assaults on traffic workers, with the growing and often explosive confusions among passengers who refuse to wear a mask, and with their job stability in the event that MTA finances worsen again. . “It is not over yet. This crisis is not over,” she concluded.