SHUTDOWN: In Historic Move, Cuomo Eliminates Early Morning Subway Service for Cleaning

This doesn't happen very much, but now it won't happen between 1 and 5 a.m.
This doesn't happen very much, but now it won't happen between 1 and 5 a.m.

Cleanliness is next to godliness — and now it’s also next to loneliness.

Gov. Cuomo has just announced that subway service will be shut down from 1 to 5 a.m. every day so that the system can be completely disinfected every 24 hours. The policy will go into effect on Wednesday, May 6.

“This is as ambitious as anything we’ve ever undertaken,” the governor said at his Thursday press conference.

Ambitious? Maybe. Historic, certainly: The New York City subway has never not run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as the Times reminded in 2017.

Cuomo said shuttle buses would replace the subway, which currently serves essential workers — the 10 percent of riders who have continued to use the system during the coronavirus crisis. (Full details of the plan were just provided and are at the bottom of this story as we rapidly update through the day.)

Improved bus service will be the key, said TransitCenter Executive Director David Bragdon.

“Even with ridership down substantially, thousands of essential workers ride the subway overnight. New Yorkers need to see the governor’s plan for how nighttime bus service will pick up the slack,” he said in a statement. “The governor should announce specific milestones that will trigger the resumption of overnight service, such as the number of days below a specific threshold of new COVID-19 infections. The criteria announced by the MTA today were much too vague. Riders need more assurance that this is a temporary measure.”

The governor did not link his decision to his ongoing battle with Mayor de Blasio over homeless people seeking shelter in the subway system, but his decision comes a day after he called the subway “disgusting” as a result of the pandemic.

The move apparently has the support of de Blasio, who was at Cuomo’s press briefing. Earlier in the week, the mayor had called for terminating subway service on 10 lines one stop before the end of the line — where the homeless would be connected to social services. The MTA announced its own measures on Wednesday aimed at discouraging the homeless to ride the system. At the time, the agency said a shutdown would not be necessary, as David Meyer of the Post and Dana Rubinstein of Politico pointed out on Twitter:

The MTA’s initial measures regarding the homeless were not about social service, but about policing:

  • no person is permitted to remain in a station for more than an hour
  • no person can remain on a train or on the platform after an announcement that the train is being taken out of service
  • no one may use a wheeled cart greater than 30 inches in length or width, including shopping and grocery carts.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that the NYPD has increased ejections of people in the subway from about 50 or 60 per week in January to about 180 per day now.

Advocates pointed out that essential workers will likely be adversely affected by the shutdown, especially given that the “non-essential” or work-from-home crowd has basically not been using the subway.

“Even during a crisis, New York is and will be a 24/7 city,” said Danny Pearlstein of Riders Alliance. “Gov. Cuomo’s suspension of subway service must be strictly temporary while a longer-term solution is developed and implemented. And, in the meantime, the governor must ensure that riders have access to safe, reliable, and frequent replacement bus service.”

In his comments, the governor did not discuss many details for how stranded riders would get around, mentioning shuttle buses, dollar vans and cab services such as Uber.

Other advocates also questioned the overnight shutdown.

Ben Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas was not alone in being concerned about the precedent, especially given that the MTA was already moving towards providing free cab rides rather than running transit service at the ends of some lines.

“An end date for the overnight shutdown would make it more believable that it’s temporary, and more reassuring that life will get back to normal for the city that never sleeps,” MTA board member Andrew Albert and Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee said in a statement. “This should not be an excuse to make overnight closures the new normal.”

Many advocacy groups cheered the move, but always with a tiny tinge of concern:

“This is a hard decision to make, but this is the right thing to do,” said Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association. “New bus service that mimics subway service is key, to ensure that riders – including our essential and frontline workers – are not stranded.”

The Regional Plan Association, of course, famously called for the subway to be shut down at night so repairs could be made — and that was before this pandemic.

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign also agreed with the move, but offered some cautions.

“We call on the MTA to work with the city to expand bus options, including more frequent overnight service and dedicated lanes for buses and emergency vehicles,” the group said in a statement. “The MTA should also establish clear sanitation and social distancing guidelines for dollar van services and for-hire vehicles. This will send a message to the riding public that everyone’s safety is the top priority.”

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called for the city to step up to fill the gap left by the four-hour-per-day shutdown.

On the plus side, very few riders typically use the subway during those early morning hours, at least one advocate pointed out. Also, the biggest challenge when the coronavirus crisis is “over” will be to restore trust to rebuild ridership. The MTA is currently projecting only about 60 percent of riders will return:

Car-centric Queens Council Member Bob Holden, whose career has not been distinguished by aggressive support of public transit, was crowing on Twitter that the governor had gotten a policy idea from him and three Council colleagues.

In they letter of April 15, the four lawmakers said the shutdown was necessary to protect transit workers. But they also called for the elimination of tolls and parking fines — a policy that would have certainly increased driving and illegal parking.

There’s also a be-careful-what-you-wish-for quality to Holden’s letter; it only requested that the cleaning shutdown occur for one week. On Thursday, interim NYC Transit President Sarah Feinberg said the shutdown would continue “until the end of the pandemic.”

— With Julianne Cuba and Dave Colon

This is a breaking story and will be updated. For now, here is the full MTA press release:

MTA Announces Overnight Closure of Subway for Deep Cleaning, Launches “Essential Connector” for Heroic Frontline Workers During Ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority today announced the closure of the subway system overnight from 1 – 5 a.m. for daily deep cleaning and a new “Essential Connector” service to continue moving the heroes on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic beginning Wednesday, May 6. During this overnight period, the MTA will intensify disinfecting operations, cleaning its fleet of thousands of cars and buses every night, and further testing new and innovative cleaning solutions, including UV, antimicrobials and electrostatic disinfectants. Essential workers traveling to and from work during the overnight will be connected with for-hire-vehicles through the “Essential Connector” program at no cost to customers. New York City Transit and MTA bus service will continue to run under the MTA Essential Service Plan with enhancements along high ridership routes.

The closure of the system during the overnight period of 1-5 a.m. will require significant and sustained NYPD resources. All customers will be required to leave the trains and the stations during this time. The city has agreed to bolster its presence systemwide and deploy additional NYPD resources as the safety and security of the system is paramount during this period.

“This is an unprecedented time and that calls for unprecedented action to protect the safety, security and health of our system for customers and employees,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye. “This closure will enable us to more aggressively and efficiently disinfect and clean our trains and buses than we have ever done before and do it every single day. We are pleased the City has agreed to deploy significant additional resources to the system at this critical time in our history.”

Interim NYCT President Sarah Feinberg added: “We need to do everything we can to ensure our system is a clean, disinfected and as safe as possible – and we have to get it right. Closing our system for a limited time overnight will enable us to clean and disinfect every car, every night. We also want to make sure we find a way to do this as efficiently and in as innovative a way as possible to ensure we are maximizing safety of our riders. We need to do this while we continue moving the heroes on the frontlines of this crisis – the doctors, nurses, grocery workers, utility employees and childcare workers. Our new ‘Essential Connector’ service will do just that – providing dedicated service along subway routes overnight and getting our heroes to and from work to save lives.”

During the COVID-19 crisis, ridership on the New York City subway has fallen more than 90 percent. In recent weeks, the MTA has undertaken a line-by-line analysis of ridership data during the overnight period from 1-5 a.m. On average, approximately 11,000 customers currently use the subway during this time. Approximately 1,802 customers use the subway between the hours of 1-2 a.m., 1,386 customers between 2-3 a.m., 2,129 between the hours of 3-4 a.m., and 5,692 between 4-5 a.m.

Beginning next week, the MTA will launch the “Essential Connector” service between 1-5 a.m. at no cost to essential workers traveling to and from work during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic across the five boroughs. The “Essential Connector” will ensure efficient travel for health care workers, first responders and other essential personnel, including to and from hospitals and other health care services, grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and other essential services.

“Essential Connector” customers will be limited to two trips per night on for-hire-vehicles and must show proof of essential travel with appropriate credentials. Customers who do not have a smart phone will also be able to request a ride through a dedicated number. Rides will also be available to customers requiring wheelchair accessible vehicles. Additional details on the “Essential Connector” will be released shortly.

Bus service will continue to run 24/7 under the MTA Essential Service Plan. Where there are large pockets of riders, additional bus service will be added as necessary. More details on the MTA Essential Service Plan are available here.

The Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad will also begin disinfecting trains daily with service under the MTA Essential Service Plan.

The MTA will resume overnight service between the period of 1-5 a.m. when customer demand returns, and innovative and efficient disinfecting techniques have been successfully deployed systemwide.

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