NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City’s subway, the ear-splitting, nerve-jangling system that New Yorkers and tourists alike love to hate, is taking the unprecedented step of halting overnight service in order to clean train cars, a likely prelude to bigger changes as the largest U.S. mass transit system works to rebound from a pandemic that has slashed ridership.
The subway system, whose more than 600 miles of track criss-cross four of New York’s five boroughs, will close between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. beginning May 6 to allow crews to disinfect the cars each night to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Thursday. The city’s buses will also be cleaned every night, he said.
Commuter advocates and transit experts saw the move, the first for a subway system known for its round-the-clock service, as signaling a period of sweeping change for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-controlled agency that oversees a system that until recently carried 9 million passengers a day.
The MTA is talking with transport agencies around the world to glean best practices while looking at how to enforce social distancing and at staggered hours for businesses returning to work, an issue being discussed with governors and corporate and labor leaders, a spokesman for the agency said.
MTA’s plan to “bring riders back” to the transit system will focus on safety, the agency’s spokeswoman, Abbey Collins, said. “We will also be asking our customers to change their behavior, including wearing face coverings.”
The changes come as the MTA grapples with a more than 90% decline in subway ridership as New York locked down to fight the coronavirus. The agency has also stopped collecting bus fares in order to protect its drivers, further denting revenues.
Earlier this month MTA Chairman Pat Foye asked for another $3.9 billion in federal aid, on top of the $3.8 billion already allocated to the agency, to cover pandemic-related costs expected to climb as high as $8.5 billion.
Foye has said federal funding also is needed to preserve a $51.5 billion capital budget for 2020-2024 aimed at modernizing the subway’s antiquated signal systems and expansion projects.
Philip Plotch, the author of “Last Subway: The Long Wait for the Next Train in New York City,” said the MTA would have to look at cutting capacity for each subway car to achieve some measure of social distancing. Under normal conditions, each car can carry about 100 riders, though he expects ridership to remain depressed for some time.
“A lot of businesses are not going to want to open,” he said. “Clearly you are not going to have the same level of tourists, and schools are going to be slow for a while.”
New York has been at the center of the pandemic in the United States, accounting for nearly half of the 60,000 Americans killed by COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
When the virus hit, the city was in the process of rewriting the bus routes in all five boroughs, part of a reform of a transit system that has been criticized for not serving the communities most in need.
Ben Fried, a spokesman at TransitCenter, a foundation which advocates for improving public transit systems, pointed to San Francisco’s move to concentrate bus service on the highest ridership lines and serve hospitals and low-income areas as a potential model for New York.
“I think that is the way to position transit for the future and for safe operations in a post-COVID world,” Fried said. “If the bus system can absorb that it means there is going to be less crowding on the subway. Even if it’s 5 to 10 percent it would be significant.”
Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director at Riders Alliance, a commuter advocacy group, said the closing of early-morning subway service should be temporary. It is more important that the MTA look at ways to increase the frequency of subway service, especially during rush hour, he said, though that would rely on federal funding that may or may not materialize.
Pearlstein also advocated a rethink to cater train and bus service more toward essential workers such as nurses and grocery and pharmacy clerks, who may take earlier- or later-than-normal trains.
“The subway has been seen as great equalizer. What we need now is equitable service,” Pearlstein said. “If New York is not going be a shadow of its former self, transit has to work for people in different ways than it has in the past.”
Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Leslie Adler