Harbinger of economic decline: New York subway is threatened with collapse

Als “doomsday timetable” the New Yorkers refer to the project – as a timetable for doom – “apocalyptic”. The name seems justified. Almost every second train connection, warns the operator of the subway in the American metropolis, could be canceled. 9,000 train drivers, ticket sellers and track workers face dismissal.

The subway was once New York’s lifeline, but now, in the Corona crisis, it is on the verge of collapse. And with it possibly the economy of the entire city. In the past three million people got on the subway every day, almost as many people as live in Berlin. 6,600 cars ran between New York’s 472 stops. Last year they covered a total of 590 million kilometers. A train rattled into the station every few minutes, day and night on many lines. But since the outbreak of the pandemic, there has been silence underground.

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New York’s state-owned transportation company, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA for short, is in the midst of its greatest crisis since it was founded more than 100 years ago. The number of passengers collapsed by 70 percent. The forecast for 2020 is therefore devastating: a loss of $ 3.4 billion.

By comparison, in the 2008 recession it was down $ 400 million. Back then, two of just under 30 lines were abandoned, today more than a dozen are at stake. Is the MTA really threatened with extinction? It would be the end of a symbol. Hardly anything embodies the city that never sleeps as well as the constantly rolling subway.

MTA hopes for the US Congress

“The MTA,” says Richard Ravitch, “needs money, a lot of money, and urgently.” Ravitch ran the giant from 1979 to 1983 – and was hailed as the savior of the subway. He managed to persuade politicians to provide billions in aid for the then ailing subway. Ravitch bought new trains, repaired old switches, replaced rusty tracks.

Now, 40 years later, in his opinion, the state must step in again. “Without support from Washington,” says Ravitch, “New York’s public transport will not survive the pandemic.” The MTA hopes that the US Congress will provide at least twelve billion dollars.

A ramshackle New York subway train in the 1970s.  With a lot of money, the subway could be modernized and thus saved

A ramshackle New York subway train in the 1970s. With a lot of money, the subway could be modernized and thus saved

Quelle: Getty Images

If the money doesn’t come, New York faces disaster. “A modern and reliable subway,” says Ravitch, “is essential for the economic recovery of the city.” Companies, shops, restaurants, theaters, hotels – they all depend on the trains to bring them customers. “Only if the network stays in place,” believes Ravitch, “can the local economy grow again.”

Last year the MTA took in $ 16.7 billion. The money came mainly from three sources: the public coffers of the city of New York and the state of the same name, and ticket sales. Now all of these sources are in danger.

Savings should be made everywhere

The pandemic brought urban life to a standstill and crashed the metropolis’ economy – and with it tax revenues. City hall is now $ 9 billion short. The rest of the state, which stretches from the mouth of the Hudson River in the south to the Canadian border, is also looking bad. Governor Andrew Cuomo is grappling with a $ 14.5 billion hole. Therefore, savings should be made everywhere, including on the more than 1,000 kilometers long subway network of New York City.

At the same time, it is not to be expected that the number of passengers will soon increase. Because New Yorkers return to their offices more slowly than citizens in the rest of the country. Stock market traders, lawyers, programmers, insurance consultants – those who can work in the home office. In Manhattan, a study by the US real estate company CBRE shows that only one in ten employees is back at their old desk. Nationwide, a quarter of the workforce is now back.

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Why is the fear of Corona greater in Manhattan than in other parts of the USA? A survey by the lobby group “Partnership for New York City” showed: because of the subway. Many office workers stay in the home office to avoid overcrowded trains – even if they are more conceited, because the number of passengers has dropped dramatically. On the list of top pandemic-related fears, the New York subway came in second, only surpassed by concerns about infection in the office.

In addition, the New Yorkers deter that crime in the subway is increasing. The MTA has recorded significantly more fights, thefts and attempted rape than before the pandemic. Passengers are pushed onto tracks, employees are attacked with knives. The motives often remain unclear. But one explanation from the police for the increase in violence is: orphaned trains and stations.

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The difficulties are greatest in New York, but other American cities are also worried about their local transport. Nationwide, the number of passengers is currently around 60 percent lower than before the pandemic. As a result, financial forecasts are bleak everywhere. Boston’s subway expects a loss of $ 600 million, Chicago expects a loss of $ 500 million. Both cities, like New York, want to cut connections in the coming months.

Probably the US Congress will help the country’s subways. Still, their future is uncertain. Can the number of passengers ever reach the old level? It doesn’t look like it in New York. Many companies want to make the home office permanent or move departments to cheaper cities in order to save money. According to the Partnership for New York City, one in four financial firms plans to reduce their presence by at least 25 percent. So there will hardly be as many commuters again in the metropolis as in the old days.

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And not only companies, also many citizens are moving away. New York experiences an escape to the suburbs. The city has lost more than 300,000 residents since the beginning of the pandemic. The virus challenges living and working in confined spaces. Will the metropolis really need 472 stations and 6600 wagons in the future? After more than 100 years, it seems, the golden era of the New York subway could come to an end.

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