New York City subway ridership has nearly doubled since its modern-day trough of 1977, when the subways carried 917.2 million riders, to the recent peak of nearly 1.8 billion in 2015. Yet subway ridership has not grown evenly across the city, nor has it grown fastest where jobs are concentrated. One commonality stands out among a myriad of contributors to the growth in subway ridership. As the number and share of New Yorkers in the labor force have grown, the number and share of those workers who rely on mass transit—especially the subway system—to get to their new jobs have also grown.
Areas including the lower-income neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Central Harlem, and northern Brooklyn have regained or exceeded their population lows in the late 1970s. The new populations are more likely to be employed than residents one or two generations ago—and they would be unable to get to their jobs if it were not for a reliable transit system. Likewise, the city’s booming service sector, including its hospitality industry, could not succeed were it not for its access to this labor pool.
Beginning in the 1980s, New York rebuilt its transit infrastructure. As a result, there was much extra capacity on subway trains in the next few decades to absorb new workers as the city’s population grew toward its mid-20th-century peak. Today, though, New York has no such extra capacity. Indeed, overall city ridership has declined slightly since 2016, because the trains—particularly for outer-borough commuters heading for destinations in Manhattan at peak hours—simply cannot fit more people.
To protect the economic and social gains that have been made in the last several decades—and secure the future of the economy—state and city elected officials and policymakers will have to invest, and invest wisely, in additional subway, bus, ferry, and other transit capacity. Otherwise, they risk presiding over stagnant job growth and workforce participation that is independent of any cyclical recession.