New York City Subway Sees Record Ridership: Why Taking the Train is Awesome


Photo: Unlisted Sightings via Flickr/CC BY

Today, more people are riding New York's subway than at any point since the nation was going to work six days a week in the 1940s. That's awesome. The New York Times has a story today on how the massive increase in weekend ridership is tying records from that era, and putting a strain on an aging, already stressed system in the process. But while the report's focus is on an emerging need to find new ways to schedule repairs and upgrades, the bigger picture reminds us of some encouraging trends -- good public transit is becoming the preferred means of travel where once it was derided. Here's the meat of the Times' report:

Weekend trips have doubled in the past 20 years, far outpacing the growth of ridership during the workweek. Last year, the subway had 5.36 million rides on average during weekends, one of the highest counts on record, transit officials said ...

The new weekend rush speaks to significant improvements in a transit system that was once seen as a national symbol of urban blight. But it also points to the shifting cultural and economic picture of New York, where changing work habits, population patterns and generational attitudes have helped turn the subway into the default mode of transportation at any time of day.

Studies have uncovered a fading interest in cars amongst the up-and-coming generation, and these swelling ridership rates look as though they're beginning to reflect that newfangled attitude.

The Times report notes that the new generation of riders doesn't associate the subway with the dark, dangerous cesspools in the urban underbelly, as generations prior have -- and that seems about right. I've never hesitated to hop on a homeward bound train in the middle of the night. My friends and girlfriend take the train late at night, too. That, of course, also reflects the fast-declining crime rates that many of the nation's biggest cities are undergoing -- public transit needs to feel safe to work efficiently, obviously.

I can also tell you that despite the service bumps and often-filthy stations, I absolutely love the subway. It's beyond convenient, and by far my preferred way of getting around the city. After living in New York for five years, cities without good public transit -- notably, LA -- feel painfully gridlocked, stagnant, and limiting. You can read, catch up on email, be a little bit drunk, or just think while on the train -- all of which are impossible or illegal to do when driving.

I'd be remiss not to note the downside behind the increased ridership, however -- some of it is driven by the return to workaholic-ism of yore, according to the Times, meaning that the trend also reveals a trend toward longer workweeks (for, coincidentally, increasingly less pay).

But by and large, the popularization -- even standardization -- of subway travel in New York is an exceedingly welcome phenomenon. And it should be an example to cities that currently lack such reliable and widely accessible public transit networks: I, for one, and many of my generational peers, no longer want to live anywhere that doesn't have one.

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