June 20, 2002

Masses in Transit, to Anywhere but Work


It has been many years since the image of New York City's transit system was one of a crumbling and dangerous place used with grim determination only by those who had no better way to get to work.

But a study of newly released transit data from the 2000 census has found a remarkable reversal: with the huge improvements to subway and bus service in the last decade and discounts introduced for riding it, mass transit is now used less frequently as a way to go to work than it is to go everywhere else in the city: shopping, eating, to the beach or to see your grandmother in the Bronx.

The trend is one that transit officials have long seen in their own statistics, with weekend ridership climbing rapidly in the last several years and many subway stations crammed even in the middle of the night. In the 1990's, that kind of growth helped push subway ridership up by 34 percent and bus ridership by 27 percent, and combined bus and subway weekday ridership topped seven million last year.

But the census numbers show exactly how profound the shift has been in New Yorkers' perceptions about mass transit as a reliable and cheap way to go not just where they need to go but also where they want to go.

Bus and subway ridership for nonwork trips shopping, recreation and personal business increased by a surprising 62 percent in the 1990's, according to the analysis by Bruce Schaller, a consultant on urban transportation issues, who examined the census numbers, along with other transit statistics. By contrast, work-related trips on mass transit increased by 6.7 percent.

As a result of that divergence, work trips now account for less than half of all subway and bus trips, dropping to 44.1 percent in 2000 from 54.5 percent in 1990.

The shift helps explain why transit ridership has continued to increase in 2002 despite falling employment in New York City in the last year, Mr. Schaller said.

But more significantly, it shows that the city seems to be in the midst of a return to the kind of relationship it had with mass transit several decades ago, before the Robert Moses era and the rise of the automobile.

"What has happened here is that the transit system has essentially been reincorporated back into people's life outside of work," Mr. Schaller said.

"You would have to look back to the 40's and 50's, I think, to find the last time it was like that." (In fact, he pointed out, the car was long such a minor player in city transportation that until 1950, it was illegal to park overnight in Manhattan.)

While the rebuilding of much of the subway system and the purchase of new trains and buses has made mass transit cleaner and more reliable,

Mr. Schaller said that probably the strongest motivator moving people back to transit was the MetroCard, which was introduced in 1994 and began to offer discounts in 1998.

Now, according to New York City transit officials, 40 percent of MetroCard users buy one-day, 7-day or 30-day unlimited cards, which can reduce the price of their trips to significantly below the $1.50 fare if used frequently.

Mr. Schaller believes that the unlimited cards have transformed the mental calculations New Yorkers make when they think about mass transit, especially for discretionary trips.

"You don't think about a trip costing something in the way that you thought with a token," he said. "There's this sense of freedom now that you can hop on a bus to go just 10 blocks and you don't feel like you're getting ripped off."

Regional transit figures show that, five years ago, the frequency of trips of any kind by car or mass transit, even by foot were relatively low in the city compared with the suburbs, probably because of differences in the way suburbanites and city dwellers perceived the cost and ease of traveling.

If the tank had gas in it, a hop in the car for a quick spin to the suburban mall could feel as if it cost nothing. Driving was more difficult in the city, however, and subway and buses had a definite cost that, even though small, could discourage a whim to travel. The MetroCard, Mr. Schaller said, has changed that.

"The way you can look at it is that there was a kind of pent-up demand for travel in the city that's now able to express itself," he said.

That kind of expression, on subways and buses, has been considered a major public policy victory in New York, undoubtedly good for the environment and one that other cities are trying to emulate.

The downside is that, even though transit service has been increased significantly on the weekends and in off-peak hours in the last several years, it has yet to catch up with the demand in many parts of the system.

As Mr. Schaller put it, "It's always hard to find a seat on the subway during the rush, but now it can be hard to find one on Sunday mornings, literally."