The dominance of the New York City subway

Perhaps the most incredible thing about the New York City Subway has been its utter dominance of the well-publicized national transit ridership increases of the last decade. According to annual data published by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), ridership on the New York City Subway accounts for all of the transit increase since 2005. Between 2005 and 2015, ridership on the New York City Subway increased nearly 1 billion trips. By contrast, all of the transit services in the United States, including the New York City Subway, increased only 800 million over the same period. On services outside the New York City subway, three was a loss of nearly 200 million riders between 2005 and 2015…

That is from Wendell Cox.  And note that use of the NYC system peaked in the late 1940s!


For the pointer I thank the estimable Chug.


Note to urban planners, bureaucrats and Democratic Mayors everywhere: you must not have spend enough countless billions of dollars on useless light rail projects in the last decade. Must up your game. Clearly, transit has been falling because you must not have spend enough money on it. Get to it!

Note to urban planners. This just proves that you simply must build more parking. At least half of your cities and 90% of your suburban office parks must be parking spaces. And don't get me started on roads. If you haven't paved it yet, quit your job!

You need bigger parking lots and wider thoroughfares only if you want to pack more people and cars into the same space. But that's not what people want, and is not what's been happening. Instead, metro areas have become multi-centered, and the vast majority of trips never go anywhere near downtown (a pattern that fixed transit lines are ill-suited to serve). As populations grow, metro areas grow outward, density remains constant (or continues to decline) and auto travel remains practical at current levels of paving. Consider Naperville, IL -- a small town on the outer fringe of the Chicago metro area a few decades ago, it has since grown into one of the largest (and wealthiest) cities in Illinois. It is not a bedroom community; businesses have located there also, and few of its residents commute downtown (though they remain close enough to travel there for occasional events). Urban planners may hate this kind of development, but the public has clearly voted for it with their feet (as the Chicago metro area has grown in the last 50 years, nearly a million people have left the city itself).

It's not at all clear that exurbia is "what people want." All sorts of factors influence and constrain people's choices, most obviously government policy (zoning and permitting, road building, housing finance programs, foreign policy aimed at managing oil supply, etc.) And if you measure desire by the reasonable metric of how much people are willing to pay--say, price per square foot--then "what people want" looks, in my metro region at least, like my walkable, dense, very expensive neighborhood.

Eric - the problem with your argument is that it seems to ingore the point that government is driven by what people want. People who own land and buildings in high density areas like the expense of building there to be very high. People who own lovely houses on yards (as do I) like that just fine, and can and will make literally infinite pain for politicians who try to screw with it. People who live in one exurb and commute to another, and will never ever have a job or dwelling in downtown, like highways and good traffic, and in WA their agents in the legislature recently scalped a DOT head over a failure of traffic management.

People (on the whole) like cars (on the whole) and short of some authoritarian communist scheme were you allocate everybody outside of the elite 900 sq ft of dwelling space, you will not change that.

"And if you measure desire by the reasonable metric of how much people are willing to pay–say, price per square foot–then “what people want” looks, in my metro region at least, like my walkable, dense, very expensive neighborhood."

That makes zero sense. You're saying because some people are willing to pay more for less, then that means that this is a reflection of what "people" want.

Apparently, you have no idea why a demand curve is downward sloping :)

To put it in other terms, people are willing to pay more for a Rolls Royce than a Toyota Camry.

Hence, it must follow from your logic that...people prefer Rolls Royce over a Totoya Camry.

Hence, government policy should be directed at Rolls Royce drivers.

Except of course that there's 10,000x more Toyota Camry buyers than Rolls Royce buyers. Go figure :)

Ever heard of heterogeneous preferences?

"You need bigger parking lots and wider thoroughfares only if you want to pack more people and cars into the same space. But that’s not what people want, and is not what’s been happening. Instead, metro areas have become multi-centered, and the vast majority of trips never go anywhere near downtown"

You're trying to explain how modern cities work to...Jan.

To JAN. Think about that for a second.

Why don't you use "so's your mother" as your standard rejoinder? It's no worse than your usual stuff and it will same you time.

Personally, I quite like sitting in traffic for an hour when I could walk it in the same time. Who needs public transit when you can just walk?

Do you know how to ride a bike?

Since cyclists are one of the greatest threats to economic efficiency, public safety, and well-being in general, I refuse to get on that bandwagon. Especially, they get in my way and slow things down, so we need to put more and larger vehicles on the road so I can get places faster. People are pretty smart like that.

Heh, I was waiting for the twist in this comment but it never came. Are you actually implying that American government has spent TOO MUCH on boosting the rail system in recent years? We're in a situation where even existing public transit systems are falling apart due to lack of funding. It's not like there's been some huge wave of investment lately, quite the opposite.

In what planet do you live in where "public transit" is falling apart?

Here where I live in Houston, we've spend a few billion dollars building a stupid light-rail system which is totally un-utilized, blocks 3 lanes of traffic wherever it goes, and sucks the entire city's budget on road repairs or expansions.

Where it not for the saving grace of the State of Texas building more highways, we'd be in trouble because the city, run by idiotic Democratic Mayors, wastes the entire city's budget on such boondoggles.

The same experience repeated in just about every other city in the US: Salt Lake, Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas, Portland, Seattle, whatever.

You seem to think the entire universe of cities consists of NYC and Washington DC.

11.3 million annual riders is "totally unutilized"?

You seem to have a special place in your heart for hating rail. A bad memory perhaps?

11.3m a year is 31k riders per day. That is pathetic for mass rapid transit in a city with 2 million people and a metro area of 6 million.
The daily rapid transit ridership in a similar sized city with decent public transport should be about 40-80x larger (see Berlin, Taipei, Rome etc).

Yes, I am exactly saying they are spending TOO MUCH...on useless projects.

I don't need to argue that they spend...too much. The numbers say so. None of these systems (except NYC) are profitable, which means none are worth their cost. Most are sooo unprofitable, that they suck dry entire city's transportation budgets, and are having very severe negative impacts on all other forms of transportation. And for 95% of cities, very few people use them. So the numbers tell us they are spending too much.

If they wanted to improve public transit (which no one actually uses outside of NYC and DC)...they could very easily have spend the $2 billion spend on 5 miles of light rail...and buy about 3,000 buses instead. You get literally 50x the capacity of light rail, with zero interference on existing traffic (unlike light rail which has to take up half the street its on), with unlimited flexibility in where you can go, and 50x the physical spread since you can have bus routs going anywhere you want rather than only in 1 fixed location.

So I have an idea idea: what to increase your public transit spread by 5,000 %? Don't build a rail system and instead buy buses :)

Crazy idea...I know.

So these idiots want "public transit"...but chose the single most limited form of public transit imaginable. Because trains are more sexy than buses.

Again, I'm speaking of 90% of cities in the US that aren't NYC and DC.

NYC was stuck with the infrastructure it inherited from the 1930s, and DC was stuck with the idiots who live and run it. The rest of the cities could chose what to do: and in every case, chose to burn their money in a giant boondoggle.

I'm sure you're aware of the concept of externalities. Aside from congestion, labour markets are better served when people can get to work in different locations.

Roads=not profitable either. Get rid of all roads? Basing a government expenditure's merit on whether the final public good is profitable or not is an absolutely ridiculous metric

Note to state planners, bureaucrats, and state legislatures of every party: you've been spending enough money on roadway expansions and parking mandates to counteract all the billions of dollars spent on useful light rail projects in the last decade. Even though your competition has been expanding massively, you've managed to subsidize your own offerings enough to prevent any changes in market share.

How much of that is a rebound from suppressed demand? New York is a dense city that sensibly invested heavily early - back when it was much cheaper to build.

But the crime wave of the 60s and 70s made the subway too dangerous for a lot of people to use. Once New York started to get serious about crime, rides would increase. Was it a rebound to a "natural level" rather than extra growth?

That might have been true in the nineties, but by 2005 there were very few places that people didn't feel safe on the subway.

My uninformed guess had more to do with more people moving to the outer boroughs.

Nobody's felt safe in NYC subway since about 1929. Maybe you're safe from being killed or mugged, but certainly not safe from getting whatever disease that guy who just got off the boat has, or having to smell his BO. Biggest killer: urine smell.

Considering that NYC subway ridership is not even at the same level it was in 1940, even though the city's population has increased many fold, you can take a guess.

Mostly, the large increase in immigrant population in NYC starting in the 1990s.

"city’s population has increased many fold"

Nope. New York City's population in 1940 was about 7.5 million while today it is about 8.5 million. Considering that the subway is not necessarily useful to people who do not live in Manhattan or need to travel within or through Manhattan regularly, the fact that ridership has lagged population growth a bit is interesting but not necessarily surprising. Many people who work in New York City and live in nearby suburbs bypass the subway and rely on trains run by PATH, New Jersey Transit, and the LIRR and Metro-North Railroad train systems that are run by MTA but use separate fare systems.

And once you get off the LIRR...where do you go? You go to take the subway :)

Fine, what I meant to say is, the number of commuters entering and traveling through NYC has increased many fold.

I recall reading that transit ridership had increased handsomely as gas prices went up between 2005 to about 2012. If fact, the meme was that once ridership goes up, it is sticky downwards even if gas prices fall because people get accustomed to using transit.

Were these stories inaccurate? Am I mis-remembering?

The aversion to public goods by the 1% serves two purposes: lower taxes for them to pay and fewer public goods they don't use anyway. What's not to like about the erosion of public goods. As a bonus, the erosion of public goods serves to reduce confidence in government by the 99%, making the further erosion of public goods self-fulfilling. It reminds me of President Reagan's strategy: cut (income) taxes on the wealthy while increasing (payroll) taxes on everyone else, turning ordinary Americans into tax protesters.

You'd think the 1% would favour public transit, considering that their valuable time sees the most savings via reduced congestion.

About 8 years ago, a Jewish friend in New York City wrote me that she figured that the days of having a Jewish mayor like Koch or Bloomberg were running out. New York was the capital of the world, so it was natural that the world's dominant ethnic groups would battle it out to dominate New York City. Judging by current trends, she figured that by 2050 NYC would be run by the Chinese. They may not be quite as smart per capita as the Jews, the but there were a lot more Chinese.

I usually can see your point, but what does this have to do with the subway?

What country has 1.357 billion people?

I suspect this might be somebody false-flagging as Steve. Stranger things have happened.

Amy Chua is the future. *Shudders*

From Wikipedia:

"For most of the 20th century, the student body at Stuyvesant was heavily Jewish. A significant influx of Asian students began in the 1970s. For the 2013 academic year, the student body was 72.31% Asian and 21.44% Caucasian, 1.03% African American and 2.34% Hispanic.[5]"

Did you know that there are some specific high schools in China that have almost entirely Westerns studying at them?

You're cherrypicking to the extreme.

That looks a lot to me like one school.

Are there any generalizable lessons to be learned?

Stuyvesant is one of the best regarded public schools in nyc. For the smartest kids

In a national rail study performed in the late 1970s we found 22 individual NYCTA stations that each had larger daily ridership than all other national transit ridership. Also, NYC subways at that time were among the safest in the country in terms of crime statistics. Figured on the basis of miles, ridership, or any other measure, one could ride daily for something like 35 years without becoming a victim and then a bit more than half that crime was petty larceny. The NYCTA was exceptionally safe, except for transit police; who were the focus of criminals since they carried guns; in other words, something valuable to be stolen. The most dangerous system by far was the Boston MTA at that time where a lot of crime was physical assault. The NYCTA system subsidy then was around $0.50 / rider compatrd with $3.50 / rider for WMATA.

Evidently some cherry picking. This time failing to note that part of the decline was due to DC system and shutdowns.

From the article:

"The New York City subway accounts carries nearly 2.5 times the annual ridership of the other nine largest metro systems in the nation combined (Figure 2). This is 10 times that of Washington’s Metro, which is losing ridership despite strong population growth , probably partly due to safety concerns (see America’s Subway: America’s Embarrassment?). Things have gotten so bad in Washington that the federal government has threatened to close the system (See: Feds Forced to Set Priorities for Washington Subway).

The New York City subway carries more than 11 times the ridership of the Chicago “L”, though like in New York, the ridership trend on the “L” has increased impressively in recent years. The New York City subway carries and more than 50 times the Los Angeles subway ridership, where MTA (and SCRTD) bus and rail ridership has declined over the past 30 years despite an aggressive rail program (See: Just How Much has Los Angeles Transit Ridership Fallen?)."

Hey, speaking of transit, and people movement, remember when this site talked about all the growth in Texas and Gov Perry. I don't know if they talked about all the planned growth from Gov Walker in Wis, but here is some data from the same site

"Many once red-hot areas in the oil patch have taken devastating hits. Former high-flyer Victoria, Texas, dropped from 24th place last year to 115th. But no place reflects the flagging fortunes of the West Texas energy economy more than Midland, which, just last year ranked first on our list; this year it’s at 139th after losing 14.7 percent of its natural resources jobs and 6.9 percent of its jobs overall. Odessa fell from third last year to 173rd this year on the back of an 8.8 percent contraction in employment, and 20.4 percent in the natural resources sector.

Several Louisiana metro areas have suffered steep job losses, including Houma-Thibodaux, down 183 places on our list to 325th after an 8 percent contraction in employment. Several smaller Oklahoma communities have taken serious hits, including Tulsa, which dropped to 222nd. Bismarck, N.D., a prime beneficiary of the Bakken oil boom, dropped 67 places from last year to 102nd as 6.8 percent of its natural resources jobs evaporated, while Bakersfield, Calif., one of the country’s largest oil producing areas dropped 70 places to 109th as natural resources employment contracted 11.5 percent....

n the Midwest, the big losers include Midland, Mich., which dropped 75 places to 245th, Green Bay, Wisc., which fell 83 places to 286th, and Fond du Lac, Wisc., which lost 173 places to 293rd. In Pennsylvania, Scranton-Wilkes Barre-Hazelton fell 97 places to 373rd and Williamsport dropped an astounding 212 places since last year to 383rd, with manufacturing employment off 13.2 percent since 2010 and overall employment down 3.5% last year. And then there’s Johnson, Pa., in last place at 421st."

Light rail is essentially make work for unions to pay off the votes they provided the politicians. It is the most expensive public transit option. IF public transit is so great than it wouldn't need massive subsidy. Let the users pay for it and it will become more efficient.

Do you think roads aren't subsidized. Parking lots. Time lost from congestion and time wasted on the road.

Roads and parking lots, slightly maybe, lost time though? People drive because its significantly faster. NY is about the only place where it would be faster.

I believe that roads are paid for by taxes that are explicitly passed with the intent of funding roads. AND I believe that thanks to the fuel tax system the people using the roads pay for them. Let's do the same for public transportation. Let's require that first the system must be self supporting, that is the users of the system pay enough for the service that the government does not have to subsidize it and second that it is managed in a way that makes it more efficient and cost effective. What could possibly be wrong with that???

Dear Gone, In my state, and probably yours, roads are funded by bonds that come out of general revenue, and also by gas and vehicle registration fees. About half is state and local revenue NOT from usage taxes.

By the way, this year the federal government did not raise gas taxes to fund the deficit in the highway trust fund. Came from general revenue.

You have your information somewhat wrong and somewhat scrambled. In your state like every state there is a state gas tax which is used to build and maintain state roads. In the towns and cities the city roads are paid for by (mostly) property owners. This makes sense and is consistent with "use" taxes. Some states choose to mingle all state funds into the general revenues because it lends itself to tom foolery and looting the treasury. BUT it is rare that states spend money on roads in excess of revenues from state gas taxes. So while the funding is muddied by your state the source is still from gas taxes.

AH!! Thank you, thank you thank you!! Who would have expected such a gift: "the federal government did not raise gas taxes to fund the deficit in the highway trust fund."
How ironic in a discussion of subsidizing public transportation. I could not have created a better lead in myself. So why do you think that highway trust fund is in deficit... Go ahead and guess I can wait... OK, I'll tell you. Because your federal lawmakers looted it to spend the money on public transport!!! Tah Dah! They don't need to increase gas taxes they need to stop misusing the funds they get from gas taxes. THAT is the problem with subsidies; someone has to pony up the money.

I think it is the height of irony that you are unaware that the federal government has been systematically looting the federal highway fund to build light rail and other public transport infrastructure. That was such a sweet irony, thank you for that.

The fact that there is a dedicated tax and fund does not therefore imply that the earmarked tax covers the full cost. There are loads of sources which demonstrate that gas taxes do not cover the cost of roads.

Again there are highways, state roads, city roads and neighborhood roads. All of the federal highways and state highways are more than covered by the gas taxes. As I pointed out the gas tax fund is looted by lawmakers to pay for favored projects, mostly public transportation. This leaves a deficit and that is the deficit you are talking about. The ONLY reason lawmakers bring up the fact of this deficit is so they can garner support to increase the taxes. City roads are mostly paid for by property taxes. My home, my property wouldn't have much value or utility if I couldn't drive to it. The roads in my neighborhood were built and paid for by the builder not the city or the taxpayer. It was part of the cost of my home when I bought it. Down the street from me the entire road was widened when the local Walmart was built. This was 100% paid for by Walmart, not the tax payers. Most people do not know this about road funding at the local level.

Don't forgot side benefits. What did they do with all that dirt? Governors Island was greatly enlarged. Of course you could never do that today.

This isn't really a policy choice. It's not like: "build a comprehensive light rail infrastructure, and population density will follow."

These systems are only viable in current high density environments. And, in North America anyway, there are a fixed number of places that have the necessary density. Of these, New York is a vastly bigger than the next (Chicago), with the remainder being much smaller still (Boston, Philly, SF, etc).

Light rail in LA is outrageously uneconomical.

Shame about DC's falling ridership. I don't get it- I'm in DC a couple times a year, and it's one of the few American cities where you can get around effectively by rail- even Chicago's system is skeletal by comparison. Also, the place is loaded with progressives.

Ridership on Chcago's 'L' increased 56% between 2005 and 2015, from 155 million to 242 million.

DC's metro is a glorified commuter system, it gets commuters to places they want to go, but is only sort of adequate at getting people from place to place in the city. But likely the main reason for declining ridership in DC is a number of incidents in recent years (with several deaths) due to poor maintenance. Billions for the new Silver Line and not a cent for maintenance!. (exaggeration...)

The DC Metro is one of the least subsidized public transportation systems in the world. The problem is that the money it gets from DC, MD, and VA is decided by the state governments. Ideally the money would come from both fares and property taxes around stations but both MD and VA won't pay more to benefit those regions and sometimes won't even allow the local counties to use their own money. Metro is also a mess with a commission of political hacks in charge with 2 appointed by each state/DC and most decisions can be vetoed by any 2 from any jurisdiction. The Unions have decimated the maintenance ability.

Yet, the Silver Line which opened almost a year ago has spurred massive development. Tens of Billions in projects have been approved in Tysons and Reston. When it finally reaches Loudoun (the land of Data Centers) the money invested and the increase in property tax revenue will be able to cover the costs several times over more so than most roads can.

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