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As pandemic wanes, subway cars remain half-empty

This week, New York subway officials grabbed a woman passing the turnstiles at the 161st St.-Yankee Stadium station and announced she had won a prize for being their billionth passenger of 2022.  

That sounds like a lot of passengers, until you consider that the New York City Subway carried 1.7 billion riders in pre-pandemic 2019. 

Ordinary life has returned to many urban restaurants, taverns and sidewalks, especially on evenings and weekends. But the nation’s great subways have not fully rebounded from the ghost-train dystopia of COVID-19. 

Ridership in 2020 plunged 60 percent, to 640 million, on the nation’s busiest subway system, the smallest number to ride New York subways in more than a century. In other words, between 2019 and 2020, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority lost a billion passengers. Most of them haven’t returned.  

The nation’s second- and third-busiest subway systems, in Chicago and Washington, D.C., are faring even worse.  

Fall ridership is running at about half of 2019 numbers on Chicago’s “L,” which logged 87 million passengers through October. Washington’s Metro carried roughly 225,000 daily passengers through October, two-fifths of its 2019 ridership. 

The obvious reason for half-empty subways is remote work. The share of people working primarily from home tripled from 6 percent in 2019 to 18 percent in 2021, according to Census data.  

Virtual workers abound in big cities. Nearly half of D.C. workers now toil mostly at home.  

Getting teleworkers back on subways is a big problem for transit officials.  

The other problem confronting urban transit agencies is safety, and not just the mask and hand-sanitizer kind.  

Younger subway patrons don’t mask up much anymore, a trend that is keeping some older and immune-compromised riders away. In 2022, three or four masks on a crowded New York subway car is a common sight.  

Potential subway patrons also fear violence. In a recent article on subway safety, The New York Times portrayed a system “with fewer riders, but more volatile ones,” evoking faint memories of an era when New Yorkers mostly avoided Central Park and subway stations after dark.  

Crime on the New York subway is nowhere near the historic levels of 30 or 40 years ago. The system typically logs a few thousand major crimes in a year today, compared with nearly 17,500 in 1990. The subway had 26 homicides that year. 

But the Times noted a “string of shoves, stabbings and shootings on the trains” that elevated subway safety as an issue in the New York governor’s race this year. The newspaper’s analysis found that, yes, crime is more common on the subway now than it was in 2019: roughly 1.2 violent crimes for every million rides in 2022, twice the rate before the pandemic.  

The New York subway system had recorded nine homicides this year through November, the Times reported, compared with an average of fewer than two in pre-pandemic years.  

The D.C. Metro system witnessed two shootings in a 15-hour span this month that left one person dead and four injured, “the latest in a string of high-profile incidents in recent months to leave commuters and transit officials on edge,” The Washington Post reported. 

One incident unfolded at 6:30 on a Wednesday evening at the Metro Center station downtown, the system’s busiest. Police said a man pushed an off-duty FBI agent over a railing, sending both men plummeting from the Red Line platform. The agent drew his gun and shot his alleged attacker, police said. Metro patrons fled into the streets.  

Aggravated assaults and robberies are more common on Metro property now than in 2021, the Post said.  

Violent crime on Chicago L trains has declined this year but remains more than twice as prevalent now as before the pandemic, according to an analysis by the Chicago Tribune. 

The Tribune found 6.2 violent crimes for every million L rides through November of 2022 and 6.8 in the same period of 2021, the highest rates of the past decade. Meanwhile, the arrest rate for those crimes has fallen to the lowest level in years. 

Transit officials say they have beefed up security on all three systems. Still, stories about unchecked crimes on half-empty, unpatrolled subway cars spread fast on social media. 

“It doesn’t seem like there’s anything to deter this kind of crime on the trains if there aren’t arrests when it happens,” Sam Bergman, 22, told the Tribune.  

The Chicagoan said he avoids the L after watching an apparent mugger burst into the red line car he occupied with his girlfriend one October evening. 

For big-city subway systems, lower ridership means lower revenues.  

Federal COVID-19 aid has propped up urban subway systems. Earlier this year, New York’s Metropolitan Authority projected a $2.5 billion budget shortfall in 2025, when that bailout money will have run out.  

The biggest problem is ridership. New York subway forecasters predict passenger numbers will reach only 80 percent of 2019 levels by 2026. New Yorkers fear looming service cuts that will make their city less livable.  

The Chicago Transit Authority is counting on federal bailout funds to close its own projected $390 million budget deficit in 2023 without raising fares. 

The D.C. Metro system plans to raise fares and offer more frequent service in a bid to increase ridership and close its own $185 million budget shortfall. When federal relief funds run out, Metro’s deficit will swell past $500 million.  

“That’s a staggering share of overall operating costs that defies any budgetary sleight of hand,” the Post opined.  

Metro leaders hope reduced wait times will bring back riders, and that few of them will notice the modest price hikes. The latter, at least, seems likely: Metro features perhaps the most complicated fare system in the country. 

As large cities struggle to lure back subway riders, smaller rapid transit systems around the nation seem to be recovering more successfully. Nationwide, the pandemic-era diorama of empty buses and vacant transit hubs has largely passed. 

Public ridership nationwide, including buses and trains, plummeted to 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels in April 2020, according to a report from the American Public Transportation Association. Ridership rebounded to around 40 percent of normal in the summer of 2020. The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines pushed national ridership near 60 percent of 2019 levels by late 2021, and to 70 percent today.  

Public transit use runs higher in smaller cities, where remote work is less common and ridership was lower to begin with. Bus systems have recovered lost riders more quickly than train lines.  

The relative success of bus routes speaks to subtle socioeconomic differences between bus and train customers. Bus lines “generally serve more essential workers, while rail modes serve more office commuters,” the report states. Amid the pandemic, “rail riders have been more likely to have options to work from home.” 

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