Is Cuomo’s Overnight Subway Closure a Sneak Attack on Full 24-7 Service?

This is the end. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit
This is the end. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

Will the City that Never Sleeps ever fully wake up from its nap?

As New York City continues without 24/7 subway service, Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio and MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye have all insisted that 24-hour service will return when the coronavirus pandemic is over. But recently, Cuomo has been hailing the overnight shutdown as the linchpin of the cleanest system he’s ever seen, and literally suggested there’s a choice New York will need to make between spotless subway cars or 24-hour service.

As the governor continues to talk up the benefits of shutting the subways down and the MTA refuses to even entertain the idea of adding something like ridership metrics to trigger the return to 24/7 service, it’s fair to wonder — as many activists are — if that service will ever actually return.

“The governor needs to give us criteria for when overnight service comes back,” said Riders Alliance communications director Danny Pearlstein. “He’s talking up these shiny trains, but New Yorkers have built our entire lives around overnight service. So just like he’s established criteria to reopen regions across the state, we need those for restarting overnight subway service so we can go over the merits and argue them if necessary.”

The governor’s most recent comments about overnight subway service are worrying, since overnight service is being pitched as an impediment to lemon-scented subway cars, and there doesn’t appear to be an organized pushback against his messaging.

“You can’t disinfect the cars and clean them the way they’re cleaning them and have around-the-clock service,” the governor said last Monday. Two days later, he told reporters that “those trains are cleaner than they’ve ever been in my lifetime.”

MTA management has shrugged off the governor’s rhetoric, saying that overnight subway service will return. But even that is a subtle rewriting of the history of the shutdown. When the overnight cessation was announced, Foye told reporters, “This is a cessation of service during the pendency of the pandemic” and that 24-7 service would return when the pandemic was over.

But recently, New York City Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg merely said that it was the MTA’s intention to return to overnight service, instead of guaranteeing it.

“So our intention is to return to 24/7 service at some point,” Feinberg told reporters last week at a press conference at Fulton Center. “We are absolutely going to wait until at least the end of the pandemic, but I think we’ll get there at some point.” (She thinks?)

Cuomo’s praise for the shining results of the end of overnight service have also been boosted by sections of the city’s civil society and even Mayor de Blasio’s MTA Board representatives. Bob Linn, a mayoral appointee to the MTA Board, endorsed the mayor’s late-April suggestion to close the MTA’s end-of-line stations in order to clean trains and remove homeless individuals from the subway system, and told Streetsblog that less subway service would actually be better for the city in the long run.

“We should certainly be trying to get to the endpoint of New York City running full 24/7 service,” said Linn. “It’s a reasonable objective to get to. The question is how? The mayor’s idea is a good middle ground. I don’t know what it will look like, but the idea is to make transit service better in the end.”

Former Citizens Budget Commission Executive Director Carol Kellerman argued in Gotham Gazette in favor of ending 24/7 service in order to speed up signal modernization and do better maintenance work on the system. Kellerman’s op-ed was an endorsement of a 2017 proposal from the Regional Planning Association that suggested shutting down the subway on weeknights between midnight and 5 a.m. for maintenance every day, which was controversial at the time and never quite gained traction with the public or other transit experts.

The RPA’s argument was that overnight track work is inefficient if the subways themselves are still running. It doesn’t give work crews enough work time because so much time is wasted setting up and tearing down.

“I have zero confidence in Americans to know how to do regular maintenance during nighttime windows,” said Alon Levy, who’s covered what the many drawbacks to American transit agencies moving to a European-style overnight maintenance system. “A five-hour shutdown period in Boston somehow turns into a three- to four-hour construction window, in which too little gets done; the Blue Line is about to be shut down for maintenance even though it’s the busiest line during the virus, because the MBTA doesn’t know what RATP, Tokyo Metro, etc. know about nighttime maintenance, and I guarantee you that neither does NYCT,” they said.

It might sound counterintuitive that European labor practices are more efficient than American ones, but the MTA has been dinged for refusing to follow international best practices in areas like capital construction costs, bus stop spacing and the agency’s transformation report. For that reason and others, Levy said that New York is the worst possible city to make the switch from overnight subway service to overnight bus service.

“There probably exist world cities where replacing overnight subways by buses is stupider than in New York, but I can’t think of any right now,” said Levy.

The main challenge to ending full overnight subway service is New York’s own geography. Because of our rivers, buses have far fewer ways to get into and out of Manhattan. Four subway tunnels connect Manhattan and Queens below 59th Street, compared to two roadways. And eight subway lines connect Manhattan to Brooklyn, compared to only four traffic-choked bridges or tunnels. Levy once wrote that this shortage of inter-borough roadways makes night buses “virtually useless” in New York, as does the way buses are currently designed as subway feeders.

“The average unlinked bus trip in New York is 2.1 miles, the average unlinked subway trip is 3.9 miles. If a cosmic force shuts down the subway overnight then the optimal night bus network looks different from both the subway network (since there’s a shortage of river crossings) and the bus network (since the buses are not designed for long-distance trips),” said Levy.

The transit realities and finances don’t really point to overnight buses working either. Financially, a bus-based overnight transportation plan wouldn’t save money unless ridership numbers are very low.

“Theoretically it only works out if a train is carrying less than two buses worth of riders,” TransitCenter spokesman Ben Fried said about the prospect of running overnight buses instead of trains. “If they run a night bus service, it would be much slower and less useful than the subway line it replaced.”

Bus service costs $3.70 per passenger in New York, compared to $1.93 per passenger for the subway according to the Federal Transit Administration, which would make something like a nighttime subway schedule dependent on filling the gaps with bus service financially incoherent. Even with a reduction in street traffic, congestion is only a piece of New York City’s high cost of bus service. Poor stop spacing also prevents buses from moving at their top speeds even on empty streets, and labor and maintenance costs on the bus system contribute to the country’s highest operating costs per hour, according to Curbed.

Overnight bus service does eventually get cheaper than the subway at 2 a.m., as congestion melts away and ridership drops. The state could follow the RPA recommendation to create bus service that mimics existing subway service, but it’s hard to see the political will coming together to make a bus map with many fewer stops than the existing map. Mimicking the subway map, where stops are around 2,112 feet away from each other on average, would require a huge overhaul of existing bus service in a city where only the Bronx has finished a bus network redesign that spaces stops more than 750 feet from each other on average.

There’s also the question of adapting the bus to move many more people than the current emergency bus plan is moving. Standard and articulated buses have only 40 and 62 seats respectively, so even a bus at 125-percent capacity would fit 50 or 77 riders at a time. Moving the 11,000 essential workers who have to commute overnight during the pandemic takes 344 buses making 1,168 trips, a massive use of resources for barely more than 13 percent of the usual overnight ridership, which is typically around 82,000 people. Buses would either have to provide slower free service past a certain stop on a line if full subway lines no longer ran 24 hours per day, or would have to replicate trips that can sometimes take trains through three boroughs on one trip.

“It’s a manpower issue,” added Ben Kabak, the publisher of transit-focused blog Second Avenue Sagas, referring to replacing the subways with overnight buses. “Since buses have the fraction of the capacity of a subway, you have to run a lot more buses to carry all of the passengers, and that means more drivers, more maintenance, dispatchers, etc.”

Other cities that never had overnight subway service are now adding it, which suggests any effort by New York City to not restore overnight service is a non-starter. The London Underground introduced a “Night Tube” schedule on five lines on weekends in order to relieve pressure on buses where a 170-percent increase in night bus utilization this century left “many users suffering delays due to having to wait for multiple buses before they can get on.”

The Paris Metro experimented with overnight service from September 2019 until March this year in an attempt to boost the nightlife industry, which led the president of Paris’s public transportation governing board to say she could “imagine a Paris that never sleeps.” (And neither of those cities have the aforementioned river problem that New York has, thanks to multiple bridges across a narrower main river.)

New York’s reputation as “the city that never sleeps” isn’t just something that would take a psychological hit from an end to 24/7 service either. Observers say the city’s economy is too inextricably linked to 24/7 subway service to work any other way, especially since a major reduction in subway service would just cause a financial crisis for the system all over again.

“MTA bonds are fare-backed, so there would be a seismic shift if there was a move to decrease subway service and bus service and to encourage people to find other ways to travel,” said Lisa Daglian, the president of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. Even 24/7 service on every line, but not to every station, would be a shock to the system and region’s finances, Daglian said.

“It’s barely palatable when you have to take a shuttle bus as the agency finishes capital projects on some nights or weekends, but if it’s every weekend forever, what do you do? Move? Buy a car? Change jobs?” she asked.

Fried said that the agency should be more open with the public about the return of 24/7 service through a series of triggers like ridership numbers or economic activity, so that riders know that the agency is committed to bringing everything back, but the MTA has resisted calls to introduce any parameters since the overnight shutdown began.

Feinberg ducked the idea of adding triggers to the restart during her press conference at Fulton Center. Asked by reporters why the agency wasn’t interested in any parameters for the return of overnight service, Feinberg instead focused on a specific opening date instead.

“I just think you don’t want to put out a date and then have to move the goal posts, so we won’t put down a date just to put in a date,” Feinberg said last week.

If the MTA refuses to voluntarily explain what it could take to return 24/7 service, it may find itself required to do so. Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the legislative calendar, but the Assembly and state Senate have not gaveled out of session yet. That means that State Senator Brad Hoylman’s bill to mandate 24/7 subway service — except during a declared state of emergency — could still wind up being considered by legislators this year. The bill would require public hearings and a vote from the MTA Board before the end of 24/7 service is cemented, rather than just working off of gubernatorial edicts.

“We can’t take away this vital service without a vote of the MTA Board, the NYCT Board, or any public hearing or accountability,” Hoylman said in a statement. “New York City’s subway has operated around-the-clock for more than a century, even in the most financially unstable periods in the city’s history. The COVID-19 crisis is no excuse to eliminate the 24/7 subway service that New Yorkers, including many essential workers, rely on to get home safely.”

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