Walking and biking to the office may be good for New Yorkers. It’s not so great for the MTA.
Changes in commuting habits are part of the new pandemic reality that has seen subway ridership stuck at 60% of the old normal, as a fiscal cliff looms for the transit agency.
Prior to the pandemic, Avi Ashman would travel daily by train from his home on the Upper West Side to his job in Midtown, among the riders who combined to take close to 5.5 million trips in the subway each weekday in 2019.
But last Thursday, with his blue dress shirt untucked and unbuttoned, Ashman passed up commuting via the No. 1 or B lines. Instead, he walked to work, trekking through Central Park on a sunny morning from West 97th Street to his office at 50th Street and Sixth Avenue.
“It adds some time, but it takes away some stress,” Ashman told THE CITY as he walked south along West Drive, near 64th Street. “Besides, I would rather hear the birds than the screeching of the train.”
Ashman is among the New Yorkers who have altered how they commute during the pandemic, swapping the subway for walking or cycling on days when they go to their offices — a shift with major financial implications for a system whose ridership is hovering around 60% of pre-pandemic levels, according to MTA data.
The decline in office occupancy (still at only 43% of pre-pandemic numbers), along with hybrid work schedules, has largely driven that drop in ridership. But even when people are going into the office, some are getting there in new ways.
“The pandemic changed the habits,” said Ashman, who works from home most days.
The shift in commuter behavior isn’t limited to walking.
Citi Bike data showed the number of rides jumped by about 25% for this year as of May, from the same period in 2019. Although most of this change was driven by an increase in leisure rides in parks, usage of the shared bicycles rose by nearly 8% between 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., according to the numbers provided by Citi Bike operator Lyft Inc.
Many Manhattan docks, including the ones closest to Central Park, have reported double-digit increases in Citi Bike rides, according to THE CITY’s analysis of Citi Bike trip data.
Citywide, Citi Bikes reported an average of 92,300 rides per day in May this year, compared with 63,300 rides per day in May 2019. The growth partly came as a result of the expanded fleet and docking stations.
At the end of this May, there were 1,548 active stations compared with 777 in May of 2019. The bike fleet increased to 26,000 this year, from 12,000 two years ago, and there are plans to expand the number of bikes to at least 40,000.
“Generally we’re seeing a trend where our ridership is spread out more evenly throughout the day and there’s been more rides for leisure as a percentage than before the pandemic, which is especially true around Central Park,” said Jordan Levine, head of communications for Lyft Transit, Bikes and Scooters.
“We’re also seeing more ridership in the evening commute than the morning commute, we think as folks are more likely to ride home after taking the subway to work, or to ride from work to evening social plans that differ from their normal commute.”
“We’re on the Titanic”
As for the MTA, it plans to release updated estimates this month from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which in November 2020 forecast that ridership would climb to between 80% and 92% of its pre-pandemic levels by the mid-2020s — with about a 3% mode shift from subways, buses and commuter trains to walking, cycling and driving.
“It is something that we’re going to study very closely and try to learn from,” said Janno Lieber, MTA chairperson and CEO.
MTA officials have acknowledged that the updated scenario is likely to be less optimistic than the 2020 projections due to plateauing subway ridership, a shortage of trips within Manhattan, more people working from home and concerns over crime.
“I just don’t feel comfortable in the subway by myself,” said Erinn Kane, who has not been in the subway since March 2020 and now travels by foot from the Upper West Side to her job in Midtown. “Now I just always walk.”
While walking and biking to work may be a healthy new habit for some New Yorkers, it’s not so healthy for the MTA, which has received more than $14 billion in federal aid since mid-2020. Without a rebound in ridership by the time the aid runs out in 2025, the agency is facing a crisis that officials have repeatedly described as a “fiscal cliff.”
“I feel like we’re on The Titanic — only we know the iceberg is there,” MTA board member Harold Porr III said at the agency’s June 29 board meeting.
According to THE CITY’S Recovery Tracker, traditionally busy Midtown hubs such as Grand Central-42nd Street, Penn Station and 47th-50th Streets-Rockefeller Center are at about a third of their pre-pandemic traffic.
That’s in marked contrast to stations in working-class sections of Queens, the East Bronx and southern Brooklyn which have some of the highest rider-retention rates.
In May, a Partnership for New York City survey of more than 160 major employers found that nearly 80% will rely on a hybrid office model pandemic — up from 6% prior to March 2020. In addition, New York City is still 225,700 jobs shy of February 2020 employment levels.
“What seems to be suppressing the revenue and the ridership on the subway system is the shortage of in-Manhattan trips,” Lieber said. “You’ve got a little less tourism-related trips and you’ve also got less people going to sales calls and business meetings because in-person work is so much lower level.”
That dropoff is visible in turnstile entry data from the nine stations that border Central Park and which are within walking or cycling distance of Midtown. According to a data analysis by THE CITY, the six B and C line stations along Central Park West are all hovering around 40% of their 2019 levels.
“It does feel a lot less crowded and I can’t say I mind that,” said Abigail Strugel, who commutes to Brooklyn from the 86th Street stop on the B and C lines. “But it’s probably not the best thing for the city.”
Of the stations along Central Park West, the 81st Street-Museum of Natural History stop — which in 2019, was the 115th busiest among 472 in the system — has reached 45% of its pre-pandemic share, MTA data shows.
Coleman Belton, 31, said he opts for walking “95% of the time” to his office at 55th Street and Sixth Avenue, rather than catching the B train at 72nd Street.
“The walk through the park is glorious,” he said. “The park being what it is, it just feels like I should spend as much time there as possible.”
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
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