Cancel Preloader

MTA clocks seasonal high in subway ridership, hoping trend continues

The MTA clocked a seasonal high in subway ridership twice this week, with more than 4 million returning to the rails on separate days.

The figure, from Tuesday and Thursday, puts the agency squarely in the middle of MTA “worst case” and “best case” projections of post-pandemic ridership. The first full week after the Labor Day holiday, when public schools are back in session, is a key milestone for MTA leadership who hope New Yorkers return to the subway.

Fares are a critical revenue source for the MTA, and account for 24% of the more than $19 billion operating budget.

Tuesday and Thursday’s ridership only represents about 69% of pre-pandemic levels. The MTA has only exceeded 4 million riders seven other times since the pandemic, six of which were in May of this year. Before COVID-19, the MTA regularly clocked a weekday average of more than 5.5 million riders a day.

The agency believes travel patterns may be stabilizing.

“It feels like there is a bit of a behavior normalizing that’s occurring here in New York,” New York City Transit President Richard Davey said in an interview Thursday with Gothamist.

Midday ridership, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., has returned to pre-pandemic levels and is actually a few percentage points higher than it was pre-COVID. Before the pandemic, midday ridership accounted for about 27% of total ridership. Now, it’s at 29%.

“If you’ve ridden a subway, bus or train in the past week, it’s hard not to notice that more and more people are out and on board and there is a buzz around town that we haven’t seen or felt in a long time,” Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, wrote in an email. “The vibrancy underground, in our buses and on commuter rails is a testament to our region’s strength and the importance of the transit network that binds us together.”

The 4 million figure is likely undercounting the actual number of people on the subways, since the agency calculates ridership by tracking who paid their fares.

Fare evasion is twice as bad as it was before the pandemic, according to Davey. He estimated that actual ridership is closer to 80% of pre-pandemic levels.

“I would expect to see some improvement in ridership based on paid ridership as well,” Davey said.

In 2022, the MTA estimated it lost $285 million a year due to subway fare evasion. Overall, the MTA lost $700 million last year due to uncollected fares on buses, subways, tolls and commuter trains.

So-called eagle teams began patrolling local buses this week and cracking down on fare evasion, Davey said. The MTA estimates more than a quarter of bus riders aren’t paying the fare.

While subways hit a seasonal high in ridership on Tuesday, buses had 1.4 million riders – only 64% of pre-pandemic levels.

Davey said the agency is doing the best it can to win back riders through increases to weekend and weekday service and adjustments to the OMNY fare capping program. He said it’s a good sign that ridership didn’t decline with last month’s fare hike.

Before the pandemic, money from fares and tolls accounted for about 40% of the MTA’s operating budget. When the finances were decimated during the pandemic due to extremely low ridership, the agency hired the consulting firm McKinsey & Company to create new ridership estimates for financial planning.

In November 2020, McKinsey projected a “best case scenario” of subway ridership at 91% of pre-pandemic levels by 2024. A “worst case scenario” put ridership at 82% of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

McKinsey updated its estimates in July 2022. The firm now projects the best case as 88% ridership by the end of 2026. The worst case is 73% by the end of 2026.

Gov. Kathy Hochul approved a state budget this year that included more money for the MTA through new taxes, giving the agency confidence it can balance its budget through 2027. But the MTA will soon face crushing debt payments from previous borrowing. Those payments will come from fares, tolls and taxes, raising the stakes as ridership slowly increases.


Related post