NYC Needs the Commuting Crowds That Have Yet to Fully Return
Subway and trains need a ridership boost before federal aid runs out
At least twice in the past two weeks, Lincoln Tunnel traffic was so light that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey cut operating hours for the 2.5-mile bus-only lane, a rush-hour necessity since 1970. Swaths of New Jersey Transit train seats are unoccupied, while New York City’s subway breezes around town with less than half its typical passenger load.
Sixteen months into a pandemic-fueled remote-work revolution, New York City’s famously cutthroat commute remains a relative joyride. While the thinner crowds can be an upside for riders, mass-transit operators face a harsh truth: Packed trains and buses are the systems’ lifeblood, and they need the masses to return before billions of dollars in federal budget aid run out around 2024.
Before Covid-19 struck, 20% of the city’s workforce, or almost 1 million people, came from the suburbs. Now, even as vaccination rates rise and back-to-work mandates by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and other Wall Street firms accelerate, many office workers are slow to resume some of the nation’s most expensive and time-consuming commutes.
“People who are going in now a few days a week, you ask them: `Is that for the summer?’ And they say, ‘No. This is a new way of life,” said Jonathan Zaback, 47, of Freehold, New Jersey, co-founder of Impact Partners LLC, a nine-employee public-relations firm that gave up its leased downtown Manhattan offices as a result of the pandemic.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in a June 18 research paper, predicted that a quarter of the region’s white-collar employees will do their jobs mostly from home after the pandemic is over. A Partnership for New York City poll in a June report revealed that 71% of employers said they would offer hybrid office/home schedules.
The New York City region’s transit providers rely heavily on fare revenue for day-to-day expenses. Right now, the region’s buses, trains and subways are running courtesy of roughly $18.6 billion in federal aid. If passengers don’t return to pre-Covid levels, the agencies will revive doomsday scenarios of mass service and staff cuts.
Only a fifth of workers are back in their offices, despite widespread vaccine availability and plummeting Covid-19 cases
Source: Kastle Systems
Note: Percentages reflect unique authorized user entries relative to pre-COVID baseline, averaged weekly.
The non-profit Regional Plan Association, which researches New York City-area economic and environmental issues, predicts an eventual ridership recovery. But some commuters will trade the 9-to-5 workday for more flexible hours, driving up off-peak travel — and potentially creating chaos, according to Tom Wright, the association’s president.
“It actually puts more pressure on the transit agencies,” Wright said in an interview. “They’ll have to have a capacity shift and more frequent service in the middle of the day.”
On June 18, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s New York City subway, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad reported a total of 2.8 million riders, the most since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s still less than half the typical load.
“We are still orders of magnitude lower than we were at this point in 2019 and billions of dollars of revenue short over the term of the financial plan,” Pat Foye, MTA’s chief executive officer, told reporters after the agency’s June 23 board meeting.
Long Island Rail Road ridership is still down by more than half compared to pre-pandemic levels as would-be commuters stay home
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Scott D. Simon, a 44-year-old attorney, used to spend $110.00 a month on subway rides, atop $250 for his Metro-North commute from Pelham, New York. Now he rarely goes to Midtown, saving him about $4,300 a year, and hours of productivity.
“Two hours on either side of the business day to continue working have made me more valuable as an employee, more valuable to my clients,” Simon said in an interview.
NJ Transit, which typically had about 95,000 daily train riders to and from Manhattan, on June 17 reported ridership at 40% to 70%, depending on the day of the week and the line. Its own interstate bus fleet, running a full schedule, has reached just 50% pre-pandemic ridership, while its privately run contracted buses have yet to restore full service.
“We’re running very limited service to begin with, but as I keep on saying, at least it’s a glimmer of hope,” said Jonathan DeCamp, vice president and chief operating officer of Montclair-based DeCamp Bus Lines, a NJ Transit contractor that suspended operations for nine months. Three of seven New York City lines are running, with enough work to bring back just 18 employees from a pre-pandemic staff of 160. He wants to resume full service but said it’s impossible to say when.
“With Covid, if you put a date out there, nothing works as scheduled,” DeCamp said.
Real estate in popular New York City suburban commuter hubs continued to soar during the pandemic, but the hotter single-family home market is in areas with little to no mass transit, according to Multiple Listing Service data analyzed by Redfin Corp., the Seattle-based brokerage.
Every month since June 2020, square-foot price growth in such towns outpaced that from a year earlier in bus-and-rail-rich Westchester County, New York, and Hoboken, New Jersey. For 16 straight months in Nassau County, New York, on Long Island, listing rates grew faster in car-reliant towns than they did in commuter havens.
Locales without bus and train service are appealing not only to newly untethered city dwellers, but also to residents who had settled in high-priced, high-tax mass-transit towns but who now have an out because of newly flexible work arrangements, according to Schery Bokhari, a Redfin senior economist.
“Now, it’s ‘Let’s buy a house somewhere cheaper,”’ Bokhari said of some commuter-town homeowners making that move.
New York City’s vehicle traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Note: Traffic reflects number of vehicles crossing bridges and tunnels, measured by tolls. Comparison is between equivalent pre-pandemic days.
Those who must return to the city are finding increased crime rates and vacancies among office towers’ street-level businesses that once teemed with commuters. Fast-casual lunch chains, for example, have taken a hit, with permanent or temporary closings of Le Pain Quotidien, Pret a Manger, Au Bon Pain, Subway, Starbucks and others.
“As a woman alone in the city, just taking the subway at night, especially post-pandemic, is a little more scary than it was pre-pandemic,” said Maicy Schwartz, 25, who works in sports operations in Queens.
Zaback, the public-relations executive, recalled “a rude awakening” in June when a client meeting in the city required him to break his months-long absence from NJ Transit buses.
“My favorite Pret is now closed — my favorite halal cart, which was in front of it, is gone also,” he said. When he looked for what he described as “the back-up halal guy” at another location, craving the chicken-and-rice platter, that vendor was gone, too. “I think about these people who were obviously living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “What happened to them?”
— With assistance by Michelle Kaske