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Keep Subways Closed Overnight to Expedite System Modernization


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Governor Cuomo discusses subways during coronavirus (photo: governor's office)


The MTA’s recent institution of overnight closure of the subways has attracted a tremendous amount of attention and criticism from advocates for homeless people and many transit advocates. MTA Chair Pat Foye has sought to reassure critics by emphasizing that it is a temporary measure that will end when the pandemic emergency is over. The closure seems to be an attempt to assure transit workers that the MTA is taking their safety seriously and the public that the trains are safe and will not become de facto homeless shelters. But it can be turned into a long-long term initiative with important benefits.

Instead of bemoaning the loss of a symbol of the ‘city that never sleeps,’ public transit supporters should be welcoming the closure policy and giving serious thought and discussion to whether to make it permanent, at least in some form.

The subway system urgently needs more regular maintenance and capital improvements, especially the installation of computer based train control (CBTC). CBTC will allow trains to safely run more closely together, enabling more frequent service and hence, less crowding. The L and the 7 lines are the only ones now equipped with CBTC, while work on the E, F, M, and R lines is in progress. Faster installation would require that lines go out of service so the tunnels can be accessed for longer windows of time than is possible during 24/7 service. That is one of the reasons MTA estimates for system-wide completion of CBTC have run into multiple decades.

That is crazy. Despite being the biggest transit system in North America, we still rely primarily on WWII-era fixed-block signals, which are safe but limit the system's capacity on the majority of its lines.

Of course, the lack of subway service at any time of day is a serious problem for those who depend on it to get to work, school, and other important activities. But the problem is less acute now. In pre-pandemic times, of the more than 5 million subway riders each weekday, only 150,000 daily riders (less than 2%), used the trains between midnight and 5 a.m.

The MTA has expanded bus service for the approximately 11,000 essential workers who need public transportation overnight during the pandemic. This effort can be ramped up and improved when the city reopens and more riders return. Indeed, it is expected that it will be quite a while until the prior levels of ridership return so there will be time for the level of alternative overnight bus service to fully ramp up.

The Regional Plan Association, one of the leading supporters of the metropolitan area’s public transit systems, argued for overnight subway closure in its Fourth Regional Plan, released in 2017:

Only a handful of cities aside from New York run 24/7 service and in most of these cities it’s not the entire system, just one or two lines. If New York City decides to use overnight closures to accelerate modernization efforts they would be taking advantage of the fact that only 1.5 percent of weekday riders use the system between 12:30 am and 5 am. However, the MTA must provide robust alternative service for these riders, many of whom depend on subways to get to and from work and other late night activities. For these riders, the MTA should offer frequent high-speed bus service. This may even provide superior service for most riders given that late night service subway service is already infrequent and unreliable, and that buses could run frequently on largely uncongested streets overnight.

Closures to improve construction productivity were recommended, albeit in a less emphatic way, in the report of Governor Cuomo’s Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup, released at the end of 2018. Andy Byford’s Fast Forward Plan provided for some temporary weekend and line segment closures to install CBCT and do high-priority maintenance. That plan, however, estimated it would take 10 years to install fully computerized signal control on all lines.

As pandemic restrictions ease, there is a real concern that many will shy away from public transportation and resort to driving cars to get into and around New York City. To attract riders back, subway cars and stations need to be clean, with public health measures in place to make riders feel safe. This is no small task, to be sure. But it will also encourage riders to return if they know that service has improved, that there are more trains and hence, less overcrowding, that trains do not go out of service because of “signal problems” or for other maintenance reasons. 

Keeping the system closed for four hours overnight, even if for only a few lines at a time, while CBTC and other capital and repair projects are completed will dramatically improve service without impacting the vast majority of riders, and will have relatively little impact on fare revenue.

In response to a question after his talk before the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) two weeks ago, Chair Foye acknowledged that the temporary overnight closures present an opportunity to make more rapid progress on repairs and system enhancements. He and the governor should go further and open a serious conversation about the relative costs and benefits of reverting to all night service versus keeping the system closed in those overnight hours and/or closing certain lines to get all the needed work done. There are probably operating cost savings that could be achieved through long-term closures as well as service benefits. 

This could be one of the few chances to make lemons out of lemonade from a terrible catastrophe; we just need to abandon the 24/7 orthodoxy and think seriously about how to dramatically and quickly improve subway service. New Yorkers can still be part of a thriving 24-hour city while the subway is being cleaned, modernized, and enhanced for a few hours each night.

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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