A report released today by the MTA breaks down some sobering statistics on subway ridership in 2014. First, the broad strokes: ridership grew 2.6% last year, to 1.751 billion sardines. That's the highest annual ridership in more than 65 years, besting 2013's record 1.708 billion.
In 2013, ridership hovered at 5.5 million on weekdays and 5.8 million on weekdays. In 2014, it was 5.6 million on weekdays, and 6 million on weekends.
In a statement, MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast noted that the subway is far better than the graffiti and feces-smeared Snowpiercers of the Bad Old Days, but that the cleaner, safer, advertising-covered, feces-dusted system of 2015 is completely overloaded.
"The renaissance of the New York City subway is a miracle for those who remember the decrepit system of the 1970s and the 1980s," Prendergrast said. "But moving more than 6 million customers a day means even minor disruptions now can create major delays."
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg added, "There is no more margin for error. The problems that we used to be able to recover from relatively quickly end up sinking an entire rush hour."
Nowhere is this more true than on the L, which is currently mired in the great L-pocalypse of 2015. Last year, every station on the line saw an increase in ridership, up 4.7% (or 5,600 customers) on an average weekday. According to the report, Bedford Avenue trafficked the most customers: 27,224 on the average weekday (for comparison, 16 commuters joined the East 143rd Street 6 train posse). However the most significant spikes in weekday ridership were in Bushwick: 11.5% at Aberdeen Street, 9.9% at Wilson Avenue, and 9.3% at Jefferson Street.
Long Island City service also saw a significant spike in 2014. Weekday ridership at the Vernon-Jackson Avenue 7 grew by 12% (1,500 customers), and Court Square saw 9.7% growth. If the L train is the Most Agonizing in New York City, the 7 is certainly a close second.
However, the MTA reports that it is going to install Communications-Based Train Control (aka, Countdown Clocks) on the 7, which will allow more trains to run closer together. According to Lisberg, those should be up and running by 2017.
"People who rely on the 7 are rightly upset," Lisberg said. "It seems like every other weekend it's not running, and people on the L remember that from when we were installing CBTC there, but it's the only way to run more trains more closely together. It's not easy work."
The report also shows that while ridership increased at all times of day last year, the largest growth was during off-peak hours. The shrinking gap between peak and off-peak ridership means more maintenance headaches all around. Lisberg acknowledged that the stakes are very high. "Back when we were carrying 3 or 4 million people on a weekday, you could shut down a line for maintenance for several hours, or all night long, and affect fewer people."
These findings are especially dire, when you consider that 17% of the MTA's budget goes to servicing its debt. And until Governor Cuomo and the state legislature get serious about funding mass transit, we'll continue to pay fare hikes for an overcrowded, substandard system.
Lisberg explained that the MTA is considering some short-term solutions to maintenance woes. For example, staging work crews near problem tracks to facilitate a faster response to, say, a busted rail.
"Our capital program is half funded now," he reminded us. "So the real challenge is going to be identifying funding sources so that we can do all of the necessary work just to keep the system running, much less to expand it and handle ridership that just continues to grow like mad."