New York has lost its captive office commuters, a loss that contributes to the city’s ghost-town effect. To have a hope of luring commuters back, the state and city will have to treat public transit not as a utility, but as an amenity — something people, for the most part, like to do.
Luckily, Gotham will start the post-COVID era with some advantages, in long-term mega-investments that are about to pay off.
For the first time ever, the Big Apple’s corporate employers and their office workers have proved that they don’t need the city. People may not like working at home forever, and they may become less productive and competitive. But the blunt truth is that they have done it for almost a year now. People’s tolerance for commuting misery has thus irrevocably decreased.
New York can’t rebound unless it coaxes commuters back. On an average fall day in 2019, of the nearly 3.9 million people who descended on Manhattan below 60th Street to work, shop or run errands, 76 percent came in via some sort of transit. That figure included 2.2 million subway riders, nearly 350,000 commuter-rail passengers and nearly 300,000 bus riders.
With subway ridership at 30 percent of normal and railroad ridership at about 20-25 percent of normal, the question is how to get at least some of them back.
The answer: Make it nicer. The state’s Moynihan Train Hall, a new portal into Penn Station, which opened New Year’s Day, points the way forward. No, it doesn’t add train capacity. It does make people feel like they are wanted.
As it happens, New York has a bunch of similarly cool stuff coming online in the next year or so, which will boost moods and garner a little commuter interest. Hard to believe, but in 18 months, East Side Access, the $11.1 billion Long Island Rail Road terminal below Grand Central, will open. Together with new track capacity on Long Island, it will give tens of thousands of suburbanites a far easier and more pleasant commute to East Midtown.
And yes, in trying to bring back Upper East Siders, it’s better to have the five-year-old Second Avenue Subway than not. That’s partly because the stations are clean and big.
Now, we’ve got to do the same for Jersey commuters, investing in new Hudson River tunnel capacity and a new bus terminal. And we need to keep modernizing subway signals, so more frequent trains are permanently less crowded.
None of this will matter much, though, if a perpetually broke Metropolitan Transportation Authority (and New Jersey Transit) have to cut service or raise prices. In the post-COVID world, nobody with a choice is going to pay even more for a monthly railroad pass to wait longer for a train. And employers know that letting people work at home, even a few days a week, represents a big savings for them.
The federal government’s $8 billion bailout has bought the MTA time, at least until the end of this year. The authority should be using that time to cut costs. At the commuter railroads, in particular, decades-old featherbedding union contracts should be torn up, with both sides starting over.
There’s no point in making commuting nicer, if the commuting destination itself is miserable. Major transit hubs like Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal and the Port Authority Bus Terminal are plagued with open-air drug use and vagrancy. The problem isn’t so much inside the stations, but on the surrounding blocks. To counteract unpleasant foot traffic, big real-estate firms should deploy teams of brightly uniformed civilian “greeters” to make returning commuters, theatergoers and tourists feel welcome.
Fifty years ago, Mayor John Lindsay had a pet obsession: air-conditioned subway trains. It seemed bizarre, when Gotham was descending into high unemployment and crime, for the mayor to badger transit officials and contractors to force them to do what they insisted they couldn’t do: cool the cars.
But Lindsay was right. People aren’t cattle, and they care about the quality of their commute. Improve, and they will come.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.