photo: A Metropolitan Transit Authority worker wearing a protective mask looks out the window of the subway as the F train departs Coney Island.
A Metropolitan Transit Authority worker wearing a protective mask looks out the window of the subway as the F train departs Coney Island. Holly Pickett/Bloomberg

A NYC Councilmember’s Plan to Save Public Transit

A New York City councilmember’s plea: We can’t reopen the nation’s largest city without safe public transit. But it won’t be easy, or cheap.

The New York City subway has been a convenient target for pandemic blame, demonized as a vector of disease that spread the coronavirus poison through the veins of the city. The evidence for this theory is weak and largely advanced by opponents of mass transit and urban density. But it has plenty of New Yorkers worried.   

As the city begins to contemplate when and how to reopen, many New Yorkers are understandably very hesitant to get back on the subway, where we typically stand uncomfortably close to fellow riders from every corner of the city. Unlike the rest of the country, most New Yorkers don’t own cars, and only 27% use them to commute. Some city residents are now contemplating — often reluctantly — purchasing a car to get to work. But there’s just no way New York City can function with many more people driving to work.

The critics’ image has one thing right: Mass transit is the circulatory system of our city. If it’s not healthy, the patient won’t survive. The city’s growth, development, economy, and psyche are built around the subways. Transit is how we get to work, to school, to our friends, to Broadway, to the beach. We simply won’t be able to reopen our city’s economy without it.

The fundamental necessity of transit is being demonstrated right now. Even with ridership down sharply — over 80% on the subways, 70% on the buses — roughly 1 million public transit trips are still being made every day as nurses, grocery clerks, building service staff, and other essential workers take subways and buses to their jobs, often traveling more than 45 minutes in each direction. We owe it to them to make sure the system keeps working.

But not just to them. The subway is also one of the few public systems shared by New Yorkers across lines of race and class, where janitors and home health-aides ride side-by-side with bankers and lawyers. That’s what makes it so quintessentially New York, and why it’s always managed to pull together enough public support to survive past crises.

New York’s MTA was already facing dire financial and operational straits before the Covid-19 crisis. Now expenses have spiked as fare revenue has collapsed. Operating the system with sufficient social distancing and cleaning is a gargantuan task.    

But there’s no choice. For us to start coming back to life in the short term, and to have a vibrant, diverse, and sustainable future for years to come, we need to keep New York’s circulatory system pumping.

Here’s how we can do it.

Manage commuting demand

The first principle must be to reduce crowding on the subways, so they can function safely for those who need them. That means clear rules and incentives for businesses with substantial commuting workforces to continue telework, to shift employees to every-other-day schedules, and to utilize time-altered shifts to reduce peak demand. The city and state government should require employers to develop and implement transit management plans and help to coordinate them.  

We’ll need to do even more to reduce traffic demand, since it won’t work to have returning workers flood the city with cars. Traffic engineer Sam Schwartz has laid out a smart plan to place a surcharge for solo drivers on the three currently-free East River Bridges, higher during peak hours, to ease traffic and raise revenue for other parts of this plan. That’s a good bridge toward comprehensive congestion pricing, which the state legislature voted to adopt last year, and which we must not delay.

A cleaner, safer subway

Daily cleaning of the entire subway system is a necessity, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to implement overnight closures is a reasonable accommodation to make it possible.

That means a commitment to existing MTA workers — especially the cleaners, who are some of the lowest-paid — and recruiting many more. Almost 100 transit workers have now died from coronavirus. Transit workers must all be well equipped with protective gear, with special caution taken for workers who come into regular contact with the public. After a bad start, conditions have improved, with more PPE available; transit workers who were sick or stayed home as a precaution are coming back to work. Like other front-line workers, MTA workers should receive bonus pay, especially the lowest-paid ones.

Obviously the MTA should require all riders to wear masks, stay six feet apart, and not touch subway or bus surfaces unnecessarily. That will require quickly scaling up of a Public Health Corps to help enforce the rules, provide hand sanitizer, and conduct public health education.

Because the subway serves as shelter for many hundreds of homeless New Yorkers, addressing homelessness is also a necessary element of the transit plan. Governor Cuomo called cars full of homeless New Yorkers “disgusting,” as though they could be disinfected from the system. A more humane and practical solution is housing homeless New Yorkers in hotels or other safe locations (the CDC has cautioned against congregate shelters, and many homeless New Yorkers understandably don’t want to go to them). Mayor Bill de Blasio has resisted the idea, even though FEMA will pay for the empty hotel rooms.

Open street space for buses and bikes

One silver lining to the dark Covid-19 cloud: With traffic light, buses are providing unprecedentedly good service. To keep it that way, the MTA and DOT must work together to roll out an emergency network of physically separated bus lanes, prioritizing busy routes to help reduce crowding. Essential workers were 30% of bus riders before the crisis, and a much higher percentage now. We owe it to them to keep buses moving when vehicular traffic resumes.

We should also support those who decide to bike instead of taking transit or driving to work. The DOT should build on existing plans to rapidly implement a network of bike lanes connecting to key destinations and institutions, as so many other cities around the globe have been doing.

The city of Paris, for example, is setting an example we should follow: They are rapidly implementing emergency bus and bike lanes known as “coronapistes” to give people more commuting options. And Mayor Anne Hidalgo has made clear the transformation will be for the long term.

Fight for federal funding

All this is going to cost a lot of money. It’s estimated that the MTA needs an additional $4 billion dollars just to keep operating through the end of 2020. In the longer term, congestion pricing is critical to the survival of mass transit in New York City. But in the short term, we need to stop getting short-changed by the federal government. Although New York’s MTA carries 39% of all US transit riders, it received only 14% of CARES transit funding.

Amid all the grief and stress of this crisis, one small bright spot has been experiencing a glimpse of what this city can look and feel like when it’s not choked with cars.

In recent weeks many New Yorkers have noted the ability to see and hear more birds, and see stars in the night sky. This is not just about aesthetics or lifestyle preferences. Air quality throughout the city has measurably improved. There’s good evidence that air pollution disproportionately causes negative health impacts in low-income communities of color, and is correlated with higher death rates from Covid-19.

Functional subways and buses, more commuting options, reduced traffic, and cleaner air are the only way we’ll be able to open our city back up safely, and to manage the next phase of this crisis. And they don’t seem like a bad idea, even after that.

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