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 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) continues to show a correlation between median household income and subway ridership. Though not as pronounced as in the earlier phases of the pandemic, neighborhoods with lower median household incomes still tend to have significantly higher ridership as a share of 2019 levels when compared to wealthier neighborhoods.
In higher-income neighborhoods, residents are more likely to be employed in areas that can more easily adapt to remote-work models, such as financial activities and business services. Ridership in these neighborhoods—and particularly in the City’s Central Business District—is also more dependent upon business, tourism and workers commuting into the office on a regular basis. Throughout most of the pandemic, as commuter levels remained low, stations in Lower Manhattan and the City’s Central Business District saw more profound ridership loss and were slower to recover ridership than stations in the outer boroughs. In neighborhoods where residents have been more likely to continue using the subway throughout the pandemic, common areas of employment are the health care and social assistance sector and the leisure and hospitality sector.
While ridership return stagnated slightly in July and August, it grew more robustly in September and may be setting a new pattern, with ridership in Lower Manhattan returning faster than citywide rates as some employers begin to transition back toward in-person work models. This is particularly apparent in Chinatown and the Lower East Side (where ridership as a share of 2019 levels was 3.1 percentage points higher in September than it was in August) and in Battery Park, Greenwich Village, and Soho (where ridership as a share of 2019 levels was 2.7 percentage points higher in September than in August). For comparison, citywide September ridership was 2 percentage points higher than in August.
This improvement was driven in part by growth at certain major hubs. Ridership levels at the Fulton Street subway station and the 14th Street-Union Square subway station, for example, increased by 4 percentage points and 3.9 percentage points respectively, nearly twice the citywide growth. However, ridership at the major commuter hubs in the Central Business District remained lower: at the Grand Central-42nd Street subway stop—which stubbornly remains one of the most-impacted stations in the entire system—ridership levels grew by just 1.9 percentage points in September. Ridership at the 34th Street-Penn Station stop was even less improved, growing by fewer than 0.8 percentage points.
The differences in ridership between early September and late September were even more stark, showing significant improvement as the month wore on. Average daily ridership during the last week of September was 41 percent higher in Chinatown and the Lower East Side than it was during the first week of the month, while Battery Park, Greenwich Village, and Soho saw a 44.7 percent increase over the same period. Average daily ridership at the Fulton Street station grew by nearly 50 percent between the first and last weeks of the month.
The accompanying tables identify selected transit hubs as well as the stations where ridership has been the most and least impacted by the pandemic.
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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