Mapping the Impact of Nightly Subway Closures on New Yorkers

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An empty subway train during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City. (Photo: Jeenah Moon / Reuters)

Introduction

Since its opening in 1904, the NYC Subway has been an integral part of the city’s iconic nightlife and culture, with trains running 24/7 since day one. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, service has been indefinitely closed to the public nightly between 1am and 5am since May 6, 2020. The MTA says this is necessary for the trains and stations to be cleaned thoroughly. Interestingly, the trains are still running overnight, albeit completely empty, leading people to question the motivation of the nightly closures. Is it actually for public health, or just another way for the city to harass homeless riders who use the trains as shelters overnight? Whatever the reasoning, it is clear that many communities are adversely affected by these shutdowns, making essential workers face uncertain commutes during the pandemic.

To initially substitute for subway service, the MTA introduced the Essential Connector Program in May 2020. This was a free taxi service for essential workers which provided an alternative commute option to complicated overnight bus journeys. This service abruptly ended in August 2020, forcing riders to rely on three makeshift bus routes which are intended to replace the subway trains overnight. These bus routes are significantly slower and cover less area than the usual 19 overnight subway lines, making essential commutes throughout the city even more difficult during a global pandemic.

Transit Network Disparities

The main goal of this project was to visualize how racial minorities and essential workers are impacted by the subways being closed to the public overnight. A base layer of NYC was used, omitting Staten Island as neither the subway nor the replacement buses serve this borough. Individual census tract data categorized by race was downloaded from the Census website and the data was organized in order to be able to be visualized by a choropleth map in QGIS. For the sake of simplicity, I decided to use the white population as a percentage of the total population and then do a reverse choropleth map to visualize the concentrations of people of color in each tract. On the map, darker red census tracts represent more POC (fewer white residents) and lighter red represents fewer POC (more white residents). To measure the amount of essential workers per tract, occupational data was also downloaded from the Census website. The term “essential worker” is relatively new, largely coined during the pandemic as a way to determine which employees were exempt from stay-at-home mandates in order to keep our society functioning, so I had to manually compile this data from what was available. Using the New York City Mayor’s definition of an essential worker, I added up the corresponding occupation columns from the data set. Food services workers, healthcare/education workers, and transportation/warehouse/manufacturing workers were added up and put over the total number of workers in each census tract to get the final percentage of how much of the workforce is considered an essential worker.

This data is visualized on top of the racial data using colored dots: darker blue dots represent more essential workers and lighter blue dots represent fewer essential workers. When the two datasets are overlaid, the correlation between race and occupational status becomes clear. Darker blue dots are more concentrated in darker red areas, and lighter blue dots are mostly found in lighter red areas, indicating that people of color are more likely to be essential workers, and therefore rely on the subway system more than white non-essential workers who are more likely to work from home. Communities of color bearing the brunt of the pandemic is not new information, but the visualization of this data really shows how strong the correlation is. Black and brown communities in particular have increased COVID-19 infection rates, and this is due in part to the fact that many members of these communities are unable to work from home, thus being exposed to the virus every day while working.

With the demographic data visualized, the final step was to add the transit lines to see how the coverage compared between the subway lines and the replacement buses. The NYC subway map was an existing shapefile downloaded from the GIS Lab at Baruch College CUNY. An NYC bus map shapefile is also available from the same source, however it was created in May 2020 and thus does not include the subway replacement buses which were introduced in August 2020. In order to map out the new M99, Bx99, and B99 bus routes, I located the individual route maps on Twitter, used the georeferencing tool in QGIS to overlay the map images with the basemap, and then traced the routes. It should be noted that most local/SBS buses are still operational overnight, and while they form the backbone of transit throughout many regions in NYC, they serve the purpose of complimenting the subway network, not replacing it. Hence my project focuses mainly on the three new subway replacement bus routes rather than the entire overnight bus network. When I say “overnight buses/routes”, I am referring to the three replacement routes unless stated otherwise.

When compared side by side, the differences between the two systems are clear. The bus network is miniscule compared to the subway network it replaces every night. All three bus routes originate from Manhattan. One goes to the Woodlawn in the Bronx (Bx99) paralleling the 4 train, and two go to Brooklyn terminating at Midwood (B99) and East New York (M99), paralleling the 2 and 3 trains respectively. This is a very limited coverage area, with the eastern Bronx, southern Brooklyn, upper west and lower east sides of Manhattan, and the entirety of Queens being omitted from the overnight service. Eastern Queens already has very limited subway service, with the 7 terminating in Flushing and the F/E/J/Z terminating in Jamaica. Local buses form the backbone of transit within the borough, with most feeding into the subway system at some point during their journeys to provide a relatively convenient transfer. With the elimination of all interborough transit to and from Queens overnight, the entire borough loses convenient access to the rest of the city.

Journey Times

In order to quantify the differences in service quality between the subway and the buses, I decided to compare sample journey times to simulate overnight commutes for essential healthcare workers. The start points for each journey is a busy subway station located in a heavily POC and essential worker-concentrated area as shown in Figure 1. Each end point is the largest hospital in each borough. The stations were: Jamaica Center (E/J/Z) in Queens, Broadway Junction (A/C/J/L/Z) in Brooklyn, 125th Street (4/5/6) in Manhattan, and East 180th Street (2/5) in the Bronx. The hospitals were: Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, Brookdale Hospital Medical Center in Brooklyn, Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan, and Bronxcare Hospital Center in the Bronx. In order to create a fair comparison, parameters had to be put in place. The official MyMTA app trip planner was used, and only trips using the Subway and/or local/SBS buses were used in order to fairly compare the value of the $2.75 fare. Commuter rail (Metro North and Long Island Railroad) and express buses have higher fares and thus it would not be fair to be included in the comparison.

In order to simulate pre-COVID overnight subway service, subway journeys were planned for between 12am and 1am, the only time when the system is currently running the overnight service pattern whilst it’s open to the public. Bus journeys were planned for between 1am and 2am. Although most subway journeys start or end with a local bus connection, it is interesting to see how much time the trains save versus having a bus-only trip. Something to note is that every single bus trip was longer than its corresponding subway trip. There were no shorter or equal bus journey times. For inter-borough trips, the buses added 1–71 minutes to each trip, averaging an additional 19 minutes, or a 40% increase in journey time on average. For intra-borough trips, buses added 4–60 minutes to each trip, averaging an additional 23 minutes, or an almost 70% increase in journey time! This experiment yielded some interesting observations.

The subway is the flagship service of the MTA network, so closing it to the public every night is almost logistically unfathomable. This is evidenced by the trip planner repeatedly recommending that I wait multiple hours until the subway reopened at 5am before I started my trip, just to avoid using buses overnight. The Manhattan-centricity of the overnight bus network is clear; while most subway routes go between multiple boroughs via Manhattan, all three bus routes terminate in Manhattan, requiring a transfer for longer inter-borough journeys. The Manhattan centricity also causes the overnight buses to neglect passengers traveling within the boroughs. This is proven in the chart, as the journey time increase for intra-borough trips were significantly higher than inter-borough trips (68.25% versus 39.39%). Although there are only a few subway lines in the network which do not go into Manhattan, connections between the 19 lines provide effective transit options for journeys within boroughs. The three overnight replacement buses are virtually useless to passengers who are not travelling into Manhattan.

Capacity

The overnight buses also fall short in terms of capacity, or how many passengers can be accommodated. From videos and photos of the overnight routes, it seems that the MTA is exclusively using 40-foot buses on all three routes. According to the MTA the M99, B99, and Bx99 routes all run every 20 minutes, meaning three buses per hour on each line. These buses have only 40 seats each, meaning that each route has a throughput of only 120 passengers per hour. If social distancing is enforced and every other seat is left unoccupied, that brings the maximum capacity of each line to only 60 people per hour.

Meanwhile, the subway is able to carry magnitudes larger than this number. The smaller A Division trains (numbered lines) have up to 440 seats, while the larger B Division trains (lettered lines) have up to 576 seats. For simplicity, subway capacity will be estimated at 500 seats per train. Pre-COVID, all subway routes ran every 20 minutes overnight, however some locations had trains every 10 minutes where routes overlapped. Again for simplicity, I will do a rough estimate and say trains came every 15 minutes, meaning 4 subway trains per hour on each line. This gives each subway line a throughput of 2000 people per hour, or 1000 per hour with social distancing being enforced. According to MTA ridership statistics, approximately 11,000 people were using the subway every night between 1am and 5am right before the closures started in May . This number has almost certainly increased since then, as society has opened up significantly in the past few months and more workers are required to go back to work. The new overnight bus routes simply do not have enough capacity to accommodate all of these passengers. Local buses have been picking up the slack, however crowding on any bus route is dangerous during a pandemic.

Conclusion

The MTA and Gov. Cuomo’s complete disregard for the safety of our community members who risk their lives every day to keep our society functional is very irresponsible. The nightly subway closures are a terrible injustice to communities of color and essential workers in New York City, and hopefully these maps will be able to shed light on the severity of this issue. It would be better for an overnight bus network to complement the subway by providing frequent transit service in areas underserved by usual subway service like eastern Queens, rather than isolating them from the rest of the city overnight. As more people learn about this issue and pressure from the public increases, particularly from city officials and transportation advocates, hopefully the governing bodies of the city will reinstate the overnight subway service that New Yorkers desperately need.

Written by

Civil Engineering student at Columbia University with a passion for transit, planning, and social justice.

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