Mayor de Blasio rides the bus (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)
New York City is set to begin a phased “reopening” on Monday, June 8, as indicators show significant progress in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. But as many New Yorkers start heading back to work, Mayor Bill de Blasio has offered no solutions to balance city residents’ need for transportation, maintaining public health by preventing new coronavirus infections, and preventing all-out gridlock if too many New Yorkers turn to cars.
About 5.4 million people rode the New York City subway on an average weekday in 2018 and another 1.8 million rode city buses, according to MTA data. But the pandemic led to a precipitous drop in ridership as the city went into lockdown, and the MTA -- a state authority that runs the subways and buses -- eventually instituted overnight system closures of the subways for thorough cleanings of trains and stations and the removal of homeless people from the system.
With the long-awaited first phase of “reopening” almost upon the city, transit advocates and commuters have been largely left in the dark about how government will ensure that people can safely use mass transit without the fear of contracting the coronavirus and what measures will be put in place to expand mass and other transit offerings. In order to maintain adequate social distancing, trains cannot be packed to the brim as they were during rush hour before the pandemic. Many people, including transit advocates and some elected officials, worry about a major increase in vehicle traffic, further clogging the city’s infamously congested streets and polluting its air.
For weeks, de Blasio was largely dismissive of calls for a transit plan, insisting that the city was nowhere close to seeing a crush of people commuting and that it was up to the MTA to lead the subway process, which he said the city would participate in. The mayor appeared at ease with the idea of an increase in car use and to have thought little about creative solutions to offer additional or new options to people.
De Blasio estimated that the first phase of reopening – which will allow construction, manufacturing, wholesale, and commercial retail, by pickup only, to resume operation – will involve between 200,000-400,000 people going back to work.
“There’s not always a chance to help people all the time in terms of their transportation needs,” de Blasio said at his daily coronavirus briefing on May 29, when asked about transit plans. “People are going to have to improvise and I believe they will.”
In an interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show later that day, de Blasio defended his comments. “I think we're nowhere near the number of people on the road or the number of people in the subways that we normally would have,” he said, noting that more than a million people have lost their jobs while others are working remotely. “Even if everyone uses their car, it's not in the next few months going to create the kind of congestion we're used to by any stretch. So, I want people to feel comfortable with mass transit, but I know a certain number of people are going to use their car. For the next few months, we're going to get by with that. Going forward though, the future is mass transit. In fact, the future has to be a doubling down on mass transit once we get out of this crisis.”
The mayor’s words were further confirmation for his critics that he has never been particularly focused on the woes of commuters, and that his defense of car drivers can override transit policy. Advocates and experts note that though de Blasio does not control the MTA, which is in practice run by the governor, he has authority over the streets and can use his power to expand transit alternatives, expand and build new bike lanes and facilitate a broad expansion of the bus network to handle commuters returning to work while a pandemic is still significantly impacting behavior.
“I think it's fair enough to say that he's passing the buck,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “The city should be doing a lot to reconfigure the streets to take pressure off of the subway system, including just putting out much better protected bike lanes so that as many people as possible can ride a bike to work.”
Gelinas said the city could rent out open air tour buses so that commuters can safely travel to work without worrying that they may get infected in a closed-air environment where virus transmission is more likely. “I don't think they’re being very creative at the city level,” she said.
Compounding the issue has been the apparent lack of coordination, at least on public messaging, between the mayor and the MTA. “Optimally...any type of major announcement, you would have the mayor and the MTA chiefs make it together so that everybody knows everyone is saying the same thing,” Gelinas said. But the mayor and interim MTA New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg have disagreed publicly, with the mayor saying on Friday that he has received little clarity from the MTA. Feinberg responded on Twitter, “With all due respect. We have no idea what the mayor is talking about. The MTA has briefed City Hall multiple times on reopening, including another productive meeting held just yesterday. If the Mayor has questions, he can pick up the phone and call us at any time.”
As Gelinas noted, “It's not a hallmark of a government that's functioning well during an emergency.”
On Tuesday the mayor called on the MTA to take seven specific steps to meet imminent increased ridership demand, including by increasing service during peak hours, limiting capacity on buses and trains to maintain social distancing, limiting crowding at subway stations, providing face masks, and installing hand sanitizing stations, among others. In his request, de Blasio said the city would provide 1 million masks and called on the MTA to do the same.
Barely two hours later, the MTA put out its own letter to the de Blasio administration outlining the steps it will take to ensure a smooth reopening. In a clear indicator that the two parties did not coordinate their releases, the MTA said the state would provide 1 million masks and called on the city to do the same, after the mayor had already said he would.
The MTA estimated it would need the city to provide it with 3,000 volunteers to help implement the reopening plan as well as to deploy additional NYPD officers in the transit system. And though the plan states that subways and buses will return to “full, regular service” by day one of phase one, an MTA spokesperson told Gotham Gazette that 24-hour subway service will not resume; the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. nightly overnight cleaning shutdown will continue.
On Wednesday, June 3, the mayor said he would release plans to expand bus service in the coming days. “We’ve got to get back to the process of creating faster bus service. I'll have more to say on that as we can get through these next days, obviously. But we do want to absolutely deepen that effort,” he said at his daily briefing in response to a reporter’s question. “I think people do feel more safety right now in health terms in the buses than they do in the subways. I want to see people feel healthy and safe about both. But we do need to double down on buses. And we'll certainly have more to say on the specifics of that soon.”
Transit advocates and urban experts believe the mayor is wasting precious time, and was doing so well before the incidents of the last few days with widespread protests against police brutality and significant looting in some pockets of the city. His delays now appear likely to be compounded given he’s now been dealing with a situation that led him to institute a curfew.
“The mayor is being very complacent and that complacency can end up being very dangerous,” said Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter, a think tank and advocacy group. “He really does have a lot of power to make transit work for people, even in challenging circumstances, because he controls the streets and if he doesn't act on the power he has, then most riders are going to get stuck in traffic and there will be cascading effects that are no good for anyone.”
Last week, TransitCenter and other transit advocacy groups including Riders Alliance, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, and Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition wrote to the mayor calling for a network of emergency bus lanes to ensure that essential workers can continue commuting to work smoothly and to prevent additional vehicular traffic on the streets. “Time is of the essence. To lead an equitable recovery for the New Yorkers who have been most affected by the pandemic, City Hall must get out in front of rising car congestion,” the letter reads.
The groups called for 20 miles of busways (where most car traffic is prohibited) and bus lanes for medical facilities and essential workplaces by the end of this month and 20 more miles over the summer, particularly in Queens and the Bronx where the Department of Transportation has already looked at bus priority projects.
“Today, implementing an emergency bus lane network is an urgent matter of racial justice, public health, and economic necessity,” the letter reads. “Nearly half of regular NYC bus commuters are classified as essential workers. The vast majority are black and brown New Yorkers. They are tending to the sick and vulnerable, ensuring the city doesn’t go hungry, and keeping the lights on.”
Fried gave the mayor some credit for ramping up the expansion of bus lanes and pledging to increase bus speeds by 25% by 2020, which he promised in his State of the City speech last year but has made slow progress on. “He risks squandering that progress if he doesn't act now,” Fried said. More bus lanes would mean buses can run more frequently leading to less crowding, Fried noted. “That is the path toward a more successful reopening,” he said.
During his most recent Friday morning Brian Lehrer Show appearance, a caller implored de Blasio to restore millions in planned cuts to his bus lane program. “I'm going to go back and look at this again because I think you're right,” de Blasio told the caller, Beth. The mayor said buses could be somewhat safer than trains and pledged to take a careful look.
“But I think what Beth is saying is ringing a real bell with me that if buses are where people are going to feel more comfortable, then we should lean into buses more and work with the MTA to figure out what's going to help us maximize usage of buses,” de Blasio continued.
Later in the appearance he reiterated he is working with the MTA but also awaiting a plan from the authority. “People have to know that there is a plan to limit the number of people on a subway car or a bus,” de Blasio said. “What that looks like, what that number should be, how it's going to be enforced, how we're going to educate people – and we're ready to partner with the MTA on it.”
As the experts noted, mass transit isn’t an end in itself. It is crucial to the very reopening that de Blasio is trying to undertake. For businesses to get back on their feet, they will need workers and customers, and short of creating safe ways for people to get around, only those within walking distance will be able to shop at stores or dine at restaurants, Gelinas said.
Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank, said, “I see this as a real test of our ability to be prepared to reopen. Without trust in public transit, we're literally going to grind to a standstill.”
“There is a long-term risk of a general breakdown of the transportation system that the city's economy relies on and that is causing people who have the option to leave the city to go somewhere else,” Fried said.
The contrast with other cities has been stark. Early on during the pandemic, de Blasio repeatedly claimed that New York City was uniquely unsuited to instituting widespread open streets, like Seattle had done, for instance. He eventually caved to demands from the City Council and the public and announced a plan to create 100 miles of open streets, where most car traffic is disallowed indefinitely.
“San Francisco and Boston are taking steps to ensure that people can get around without cars,” Fried said. “They're not waiting months to formulate a plan. They are getting stuff done in a matter of weeks and New York really has to be thinking on the same timetable.”
De Blasio has slowly announced more bike lanes, albeit temporary ones that are less effective than alternatives in keeping bicyclists safe, while also cutting funds for permanent bike lanes that were originally proposed in his budget for the next fiscal year.
“He's never really put himself in the pedals of a bicyclist,” Gelinas said. “It's very striking that in Paris, in London, you have the mayors just building out a huge network of bike lanes almost overnight...In Paris, you have the mayor riding a bike and setting a good example.”
She also noted that in cities like Tokyo and Seoul, transit systems have been adapted to ensure that people can travel back and forth safely. “But we don't really have either of those things at the city level,” she said.
On WNYC, de Blasio appeared to acknowledge the need for the plans he has not presented. The subways and buses need to be handled well, the mayor said. “We also know, honestly, a lot of people are just going to refuse to take the bus and subway in the short-term and they're going to try and find other alternatives,” he continued. “We’ve got to navigate all of this. This is so unlike anything we're used to in New York City.”
Note - this article has been updated with the mayor's comments from his June 3 press briefing.