The New York subway is unlike any other transit system in the United States. This system extends for 230 miles (375 kilometers) with approximately 420 stations. It serves the four highly dense boroughs of the city (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx), each of which is 20 percent or more denser than any municipality large municipality in the United States or Canada. Much of the fifth borough, Staten Island, looks very much like suburban New Jersey and has no subway service, though has a more modest system, the Staten Island Railway.
Overall, the older Metros (Note 1), New York's subway, along with London's Underground and the Paris Metro dominated the world's urban rail systems for decades. Until the recent emergence of Chinese urban areas (Beijing and Shanghai), London had the longest extent of track in the world, followed by New York.
As one of the original Metros in the world, it might be thought that the New York City Subway's best days are over. That would be a mistake. It is true that ridership reached a peak in the late 1940s and dropped by more than half between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. However, since that time ridership has more than doubled, according to American Public Transportation Association data. And it is not inconceivable that new records may be set in the years to come.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about the New York City Subway has been its utter dominance of the well-publicized national transit ridership increases of the last decade. According to annual data published by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), ridership on the New York City Subway accounts for all of the transit increase since 2005. Between 2005 and 2015, ridership on the New York City Subway increased nearly 1 billion trips. By contrast, all of the transit services in the United States, including the New York City Subway, increased only 800 million over the same period. On services outside the New York City subway, three was a loss of nearly 200 million riders between 2005 and 2015 (Figure 1).
The New York City subway accounts carries nearly 2.5 times the annual ridership of the other nine largest metro systems in the nation combined (Figure 2). This is 10 times that of Washington’s Metro, which is losing ridership despite strong population growth , probably partly due to safety concerns (see America’s Subway: America’s Embarrassment?). Things have gotten so bad in Washington that the federal government has threatened to close the system (See: Feds Forced to Set Priorities for Washington Subway).
The New York City subway carries more than 11 times the ridership of the Chicago “L”, though like in New York, the ridership trend on the “L” has increased impressively in recent years. The New York City subway carries and more than 50 times the Los Angeles subway ridership, where MTA (and SCRTD) bus and rail ridership has declined over the past 30 years despite an aggressive rail program (See: Just How Much has Los Angeles Transit Ridership Fallen?).
With these gains, the New York City Subway's share of national transit ridership has risen from less than one of each five riders (18 percent) in 2005 to more than one in four (26 percent) in 2015. This drove the New York City metropolitan areas share of all national transit ridership from 30 percent in 2005 to over 37 percent in 2015.
Subway ridership dominates transit in the New York City metropolitan area as well, at 67 percent. Other New York City oriented transit services, including services that operate within the city exclusively and those that principally carry commuters in and out of the city account for 28 percent of the ridership. This includes the commuter rail systems (Long Island Railroad, Metro-North Railroad and New Jersey Transit) and the Metro from New Jersey (PATH) have experienced ridership increases of approximately 15 percent over last decade (Note 2).
Other transit services, those not oriented to New York City, account for five percent of the metropolitan area's transit ridership (Figure 3). By comparison, approximately 58 percent of the population lives outside the city of New York. The small transit ridership share not oriented to New York City illustrates a very strong automobile component in suburban mobility even in the most well-served transit market in the country.
Last year (2014), APTA announced that the nation's transit ridership had reached the highest in modern history, having not been higher since 1957. In fact, the ridership boom that produced the record can be attributed wholly to the New York City Subway. If New York City Subway ridership had remained at its 2005 level, overall transit ridership would have decreased from 9.8 billion in 2005 to 9.6 billion in 2015. The modern record of 10.7 billion rides would never have been approached.
Thus, transit in the United States is not only a "New York Story," but it has also been strongly dependent on the New York Subway in recent years. After decades of decline, the revival of the New York subway is a welcome development.
Note 1: “Metro” is the international generic term for grade separated rapid transit systems. In the United States, the Federal Transit Administration refers to this transit mode as "heavy rail."
Note 2: Separate data is not available in the APTA reports on the for-profit commuter bus operators serving the city of New York from New Jersey.
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international pubilc policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.