The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) continues to make progress on bringing back riders, but ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels, putting a major strain on its budget. A report released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli highlights key areas of transit service — safety, reliability and frequency — where the MTA can take steps to improve riders’ experience and encourage their return, to effectively fulfil its mission and stabilize its fiscal position.
“Riders are not returning to subways, trains and buses fast enough to help the MTA turn its finances around,” DiNapoli said. “The MTA has to win riders back by giving them a positive experience and continuing to focus on improving public safety and service. Riders and taxpayers, who are being asked to pay more for service, should be clear on how these funds will be used to build on recent steps to make the ridership experience better.”
Before the pandemic, subway ridership was well over 125 million riders a month and currently is hovering around 60 to 70% of pre-pandemic levels on weekdays. The MTA recognizes the importance of bringing riders back and has set a goal of increasing customer satisfaction 10% by June 2024. DiNapoli’s report urges the MTA to continue to focus its available funding and communication efforts on improvements in these key areas. If the authority can assure safe and reliable service, it could improve upon its projection of reaching 80% of pre-pandemic ridership in 2026.
According to the MTA’s fall 2022 rider survey, 41% of subway riders said they use transit less than they did pre-pandemic and gave two main reasons: the ability to work from home and fear for their personal safety. Straphangers cited those reasons nearly twice as often as they blamed service. Among bus riders the predominant causes for riding less were working from home and service reliability. Commuter rail riders mainly said working from home was their main reason for not riding.
Despite concerns over personal safety, the subway system is, by and large, a safe place. However, the crime rate has increased as incidents of crime have outpaced the growth in ridership.
In 2022, there were 2,334 major felonies, but this included 1,183 violent crimes (51%). In 2019, of the 2,524 subway felonies, only 935 (37%) were considered violent. Even though there are fewer overall incidents of crime last year, the rate of crime remains higher than pre-pandemic because subway ridership has declined. That, along with the increase in violent incidents, influences riders’ experience and perception of personal safety. Less than half of straphangers were satisfied with personal security towards the end of 2022.
Fortunately, the MTA, with help from the city, state and law enforcement, seems to be making progress. Subway crime has dropped since October 2022 compared to the same period one year earlier following the addition of 1,200 police officers to patrol the system. The city and MTA have also reported overall subway crime down by nearly 20% in the first two months of 2023 compared to last year. The fall 2022 customer survey showed a 9% improvement in subway riders’ satisfaction with personal safety over the MTA’s spring 2022 survey.
Interactions with homeless and mentally ill individuals also influence riders’ perceptions of safety and was a point of concern for three-quarters of riders responding to the MTA’s spring 2022 survey. In October 2022, the city and state agreed to enhance mental health care with new dedicated units at psychiatric centers and expanded crisis intervention training for first responders dealing with homelessness and mental illness in the subways.
The MTA’s measurements of service generally peaked during the pandemic when there were the fewest riders before returning to pre-pandemic levels. For example, subway on-time-performance (how often trains reach their last stop less than five minutes late) was at 95.1% in May 2020. As ridership reached roughly 50% of pre-pandemic levels, on-time performance fell to below 84%, but even as ridership continues to gradually increase, this measure of on-time performance has stabilized.
Subway cars’ Mean Distance Between Failures (how far the average car goes before needing repair) has been gradually declining as riders have returned. The MTA is hopeful that new subway cars replacing the 50-year old cars running on the A, C, N, W and Q lines will help improve service distance.
Commuter rail lines, in contrast, performed better than they did leading up to the pandemic. However, when there are delays on Metro-North and Long Island Railroad they tend to be longer than they were. The analysis period was prior to the roll out of Grand Central Madison in March 2023.
Even if the transit system is seen as safe and reliable, it still has to meet riders’ needs. The frequency of rush hour Long Island Railroad trains to Penn Station has been a challenge for commuters after the MTA changed service, even as the number of overall trains to the Central Business District rose. The MTA has to balance the changes it makes to ensure service is frequent enough to avoid overcrowding and preserve options for riders.
On subways and buses, the MTA measures how long riders have to wait beyond the scheduled service to gauge its performance. For subways and buses, wait times have increased as riders returned and stands at pre-pandemic levels. Bus speeds, however, remain among the lowest of any major transit system in the country, rarely averaging faster than nine miles per hour systemwide. The MTA is in the process of redesigning bus routes in an effort to address these issues, and recent improvements in bus lane violation enforcement may also help to improve bus speeds.
As DiNapoli’s report emphasizes, the MTA must continue to be transparent about its scorecards on safety, reliability and frequency as it focuses on improving riders’ experience. As its metrics change, it is vital that the MTA maintain a dialogue with riders so that they understand the changes and ensure these investments actually improve their experience of the regional transit system.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority: Safety, Reliability and Frequency
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