Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Subway Ridership in New York City
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound and disparate impact on subway ridership. The emergence of the virus in New York City in March and April 2020 corresponded with a steep drop in subway usage. Citywide, April 2020 ridership was just 8.3 percent of what it was in April 2019. Since then, New Yorkers have slowly returned to the subway system.
While many New Yorkers and businesses turned to telecommuting to protect themselves from the virus, others have not had that luxury. As a result, ridership as a percentage of pre-COVID levels has remained much higher in lower-income neighborhoods than in wealthy ones.
The accompanying interactive map demonstrates COVID-19’s disparate impact on the subway system across the City’s U.S. Census-defined neighborhoods. Select a neighborhood on the map to compare ridership figures to a number of socioeconomic indicators and to the City as a whole.
Subway turnstile data published by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) shows a correlation between median household income and subway ridership. Neighborhoods with lower median household incomes tended to have significantly higher ridership as a share of 2019 levels compared to wealthier neighborhoods. This trend was clear not only in April, when COVID-19 had its most dramatic impact on ridership, but has continued through the recovery to date.
In high-income neighborhoods, residents are more likely to be employed in sectors that have easily adapted to remote-work models, such as financial activities and business services. In neighborhoods where residents are more likely to continue using the subway during the pandemic, common areas of employment are the health care and social assistance sector and the leisure and hospitality sector.
The subway system’s main transit hubs in Manhattan saw a particularly precipitous ridership drop in April, and continue to see only a fraction of pre-pandemic ridership as commuter levels remain low. Meanwhile, the stations that are recovering the fastest are predominantly located in the outer boroughs. The accompanying tables identify selected transit hubs as well as the stations where ridership has been the most and least impacted.
Neighborhoods are identified by PUMAs (Public Use Microdata Areas).
Subway stations on PUMA borders were assigned to only one neighborhood.
Turnstile data is published by the MTA. OSC removed certain inconsistent data points to enhance the utility of the data. Four census neighborhoods do not contain any subway stations and thus were not included in the analysis:
- Bayside, Douglaston and Littleneck;
- Port Richmond, Stapleton and Mariner’s Harbor;
- New Springville and South Beach; and
- Tottenville, Great Kills and Annadale
There are five census neighborhoods in New York City where fewer than one-quarter of residents report using the subway system as their primary means of commute:
- Queens Village, Cambria Heights and Rosedale;
- Far Rockaway, Breezy Point and Broad Channel;
- Co-Op City, Pelham Bay and Schuylerville;
- Flushing, Murray Hill and Whitestone; and
- Briarwood, Fresh Meadows and Hillcrest.
In three of these neighborhoods, the geographical area includes just one subway station. Data for these five neighborhoods were retained, though they are not considered to weigh heavily on the analysis.
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