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Op-ed | Take the subway to see the lights go up on Broadway

MTA Acting Chair & CEO Janno Lieber and Chief Customer Officer Sarah Meyer were joined at the Times Sq-42 St station by “The Lion King” cast members L. Steven Taylor (Mufasa) and Tshidi Manye (Rafiki) to herald the return of Broadway theater on Tue., September 14, 2021. (Marc A. Hermann / MTA)

Now that the lights have gone back up on Broadway, allow me to borrow a line from ‘Wicked’ to describe current MTA ridership trends – we’re ‘defying gravity’ and if not gravity, then certainly expectations.

The system is breaking records what seems like every few days following the return to work and school in person for many New Yorkers. 

Our busiest day yet came last Tuesday when the subways carried a pandemic-era high of three million riders. That translates to about 51% of our pre-COVID ridership. There’s still a long way to go to get back to where it was before the pandemic, but this is an exciting milestone nonetheless. Almost 1.5 million additional riders rode NYC Transit and MTA buses.

The commuter railroads are also going from strength to strength; both the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North broke their own records earlier this month, serving more than 150,000 and 122,000 customers respectively. 

These gains show that New Yorkers trust the MTA to get them where they need to go – whether it’s the office, a ballpark, restaurants or Broadway. 

I got to celebrate the return of live theater last week with the cast of Disney Theatrical’s The Lion King and the Broadway League in Times Square. It was an incredibly fun event that served as a reminder of Broadway’s symbolic importance to New York City – and a reminder to fans that there’s no better way to get to the theater than taking mass transit. We’re thrilled to partner with cultural icons like The Lion King to help welcome customers back to the system.  

Winning back riders is the central mission of our ‘Welcome Back’ marketing campaign that you’ve probably started to see across the system. We’ve taken out billboards and bought radio and prints ads and spots online. Signage is going up on 700 buses, with messaging all over our digital screen network at stations.

The best incentive that we can offer New Yorkers however is a reliable, fast, and safe trip. Service and customer experience are what matters most. Subway on-time performance is even better than the records we were achieving just before the pandemic.

We invested heavily in speed-related upgrades while ridership was low, and we are challenging ourselves to further cut subway run times and increase speeds wherever possible. Perhaps most important, the system is safer than ever thanks to our robust disinfection efforts and high mask compliance. 

Another key piece of welcoming back New Yorkers is revisiting fare and ticketing options. We need to devise fare strategies that fit the reality of post-COVID commuting and travel where new commuting schedules and hybrid work have made 30-day tickets and monthly passes l monthly passes less appealing for many workers.

That’s why we made the decision to extend off-peak fares on the commuter railroads through the end of the year. This will help riders save up to 40% on tickets depending on distance traveled. There are also Autumn Weekends and Friends and Family Wednesdays promotions, where monthly LIRR and Metro-North ticketholders can bring up to four extra guests for just a dollar per person. 

We’re going to keep getting creative so that we can best support the region’s economic revival. There can be no recovery without a strong MTA and we’re using technology, imagination and the great work of tens of thousands of MTA workers to set New Yorkers up for success by smoothly delivering them wherever they need to be.

Janno Lieber is acting chair and CEO of the MTA.

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