After years of soaring ridership, the NYC subway has reached the level of patronage that it had immediately after WWII, before the onset of mass automobile ownership. According to the MTA…
in 2014 annual subway ridership was at the highest level since 1948, at 1.75 billion rides. At first rising ridership was an unmitigated benefit. Through the 1960s and 1970s, as the subway deteriorated, people only used it when they had to – to travel to and from work in Manhattan in the AM and PM peak. As annual ridership fell below 1 billion the system ran mostly empty the rest of the time, a cost without revenue – and a security risk for those still on the trains. As new people started moving to New York City precisely because they wanted to be able to use mass transit and walk to things rather than drive, however, off peak ridership recovered, filling the once empty trains and allowing the system to carry more people without more service.
In the past year or two, however, the system has hit the wall. Suddenly it has become severely overcrowded, causing increasing discomfort, delay and unreliability. Personally I find riding the subway to be a worse experience than it has been since the 1980s, when track fires, track failures, and trains out of service were common, doors kept breaking, and lights flickered on and off. For more than a year, therefore, I’ve been searching for evidence of what the level of subway service used to be, back when ridership was last this high. And now I may have found it, and can show that the subway system is squeezing more riders into fewer trains and subway cars. Subway riders, it seems, have it worse than 60 years ago.