Annual MTA subway ridership dropped in 2016 for the first time since 2009 as the agency finds itself grappling with the system capacity and a continuing decline in service.
There were 1.756 billion trips taken in the MTA subways last year, a drop from the 1.762 billion rides logged in 2015, according to annual ridership totals presented to the MTA board on Tuesday.
It’s a small, though meaningful, decline of six million rides — the equivalent of the MTA shedding about one busy weekday of subway trips. But it’s a stark contrast to growth the agency has experienced in recent years. Between 2009 and 2015, the MTA has embraced an average increase of 30 million subway rides annually as the city’s population and job market grows.
“I’m not shocked because ridership growth has been so strong that there has to be a certain regression to the mean,” said John Raskin, executive director of the advocacy group Riders Alliance. “But also because the subway is bursting at the seams. When you can’t fit more people on the subway, you’re not going to attract more people to the subway.”
The MTA has struggled to keep pace with the city. Less trains are arriving on time because overstuffed cars and platforms has the strained the system. Overcrowding caused 32,508, or about 42%, of all train delays this past December, around the same percentage it usually accounts for each month.
Subway delays have surged since 2012. When comparing November 2012 and November 2016, subway delays increased from 18,255 to 60,274. Meanwhile, the MTA bus network, beset with its own reliability issues, saw a continued its plunge in ridership, from 776 million rides in 2015 to 764 million rides in 2016.
“People are voting with their wallets and their feet,” said Jon Orcutt, spokesman for TransitCenter. “Without a clear policy other than Select Bus Service, the bus trend is very clear…and without capacity changes in addition to (the Second Avenue subway), there is a physical limit to what the subway can do.”
Weekday subway service increased by a marginal .1% last year, but weekend service dropped by 3.1%, evidence that service interruptions for planned weekend work, when ridership is generally low, could be frustrating riders to the point of abandonment.
“If we’re going to improve service in a meaningful way, the planned outages are necessary,” said Wynton Habersham, chief of subways at the MTA.
Veronica Vanterpool, an MTA board member and executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said it’s “no secret” that service is worsening, but that “the MTA has to deal with very unique challenge that is accommodating growth while also maintaining a good level of service.”
Experts said it was difficult to outline how or if the proliferation of other transit options, like ride-hail apps or Citi Bike, is pulling some riders away, but a drop in MTA service is not good news.
“Without improved subway service, you risk driving people off public transportation and into cars, or having people decide not to travel around the city,” Raskin said.
Habersham outlined several short-term and long-term initiatives to improve service. That ranges from the hiring of more platform controllers to manage crowds and alleviate other delays, to the replacement of the agency’s antiquated signal system.
Nearly 30% of the MTA’s signal system was installed before 1965 and has never been rehabilitated, according to Habersham. The MTA is spending north of $3.75 billion to modernize the signal system.
That “will allow trains to run more closely together and do so more reliably,” Habersham said.
Still, advocates believe the agency is hindered by inadequate financial support from Albany and the lack of a clear vision and policy to improve service — from buses above ground, to trains below.
“These are pieces,” said Orcutt, “but it doesn’t feel like a comprehensive analysis is part of the public conversation right now.”