The MTA must focus on increasing safety and improving service to get riders back onto the New York City Subway — or risk further exacerbating the agency’s financial woes, according to a new report from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
“Riders are not returning to subways, trains and buses fast enough to help the MTA turn its finances around,” DiNapoli said in a statement.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Big Apple, it unleashed devastation on public health, but the MTA’s fiscal health was yet another consequential loss, as New Yorkers stayed home and avoided public transportation.
Still, even as most restrictions have been lifted, subway ridership is still down — averaging around 65% of pre-pandemic levels on weekdays, according to the comptroller.
To reach a target of returning ridership to 80% of pre-pandemic levels by 2026, DiNapoli said the MTA needs to focus on delivering safe and reliable service.
While that may seem obvious, DiNapoli’s report hammers home the stakes at play.
In a survey of riders in the fall of 2022, nearly half of straphangers reported utilizing trains and buses less that they did prior to 2020, and MTA customers called out three major factors: the perceived lack of safety on public transit, remote work eliminating the need to travel, and porous service.
On the public safety issue, DiNapoli noted the crime rate has increased on the subway. With 1,183 violent crimes on the subway system in 2020, straphangers are right to be wary — as there were just 935 violent crimes in the system in 2019, despite having significantly higher ridership. According to the MTA’s study, less than 50% described themselves as “satisfied” with the personal safety situation by 2022.
There is room for optimism, though, as the year-over-year incidents of subway crimes between 2021 and 2022 indicate a trend moving in the right direction — which has resulted in a slight uptick in customer satisfaction.
On the reliability front, just 84% of trains are considered on-time (reaching their destination no more than five minutes late). That has led to major delays and frustration among riders.
The MTA has worked to improve that situation as well, with new modernized train cars joining the MTA’s fleet that should help stabilize the on-time performance of Big Apple trains.
Of course, just because a train is on-time, doesn’t mean the system is meeting all the needs of its riders, and addressing their concerns. The MTA also needs to increase the frequency of trains and buses.
When straphangers are forced to wait on platforms and at bus stops for long stretches of time, they rightfully become disgruntled at the subway and bus systems. Bus riders specifically have it bad, as DiNapoli’s report notes that the bus speeds in the Big Apple remain among the lowest in the nation for any large public transportation agency.
In order for the MTA to get riders back onto trains and buses, and therefore to collect more much-needed money in fares, the agency needs to ensure that both the reliability and the frequency of transit options improves, as well as the safety of those riders.
“The MTA has to win riders back by giving them a positive experience and continuing to focus on improving public safety and service. Riders and taxpayers, who are being asked to pay more for service, should be clear on how these funds will be used to build on recent steps to make the ridership experience better.”
For their part, the MTA acknowledged the need for safety and adequate service, and pointed to advancements they’ve made in recent years.
“The Comptroller is right, mass transit is essential and safety, full-funding, and strong service are key to bringing riders back. The good news is, Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams’ safety initiative is working, reducing subway crime to the lowest level in decades which, along with a surge in subway on-time performance, already yielded a pandemic-era record of nearly four million riders this month with more milestones to come,” said MTA Spokesperson Sean Butler.