NEW YORK — The city has lost Broadway, its world-famous museums and the restaurants that made it an international destination, but one facet of New York City life is making a coronavirus comeback that no one wants: traffic.
More than an annoyance for commuters, a resurgence in city car travel is threatening decades of gains in the city's air quality. Thanks to New York's sprawling subway system, transportation in the five boroughs is responsible for only 30 percent of New York’s greenhouse gas output. But in the era of Covid-19, with more people avoiding trains and opting for car travel, that trend is starting to reverse. And so far, Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration hasn’t been helping.
New York is staring down a perfect storm: Driving is rebounding faster than ridership on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's subways and buses since the height of the coronavirus pandemic in March and April. And budgets for mass transit programs are cratering as the city reels from the economic fallout of the pandemic — a blow that could affect service and further turn residents away from taking subways and buses.
At stake is a gridlocked city where trucks and cars sit idle and spew emissions, primarily hurting the predominantly Black and Latino communities that surround major highways. Environmental advocates say it’s time for City Hall to reckon with the potential for a precipitous rise in transit emissions, and quickly ramp up infrastructure for bus and bike lanes, while they push Washington to help fund cash-starved public transit agencies.
“We avoid 17 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year because of the MTA,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “If we’re swapping that with cars, which are less efficient to begin with, we are going to have a problem.
The city became a ghost town in the early days of the public health crisis, with subway ridership plummeting to a staggering 90 percent. Roads once full of passenger vehicles also emptied out, taken over mostly by the trucks delivering food and services and ambulances driving sick patients to nearby hospitals.
Since then, driving in a city where most households don’t own a car has come back more quickly than public transit use.
Traffic on bridges and tunnels is down only 18 percent on average from its pre-pandemic levels. The number of vehicles entering Manhattan's central business district is only 15 percent below the volume seen ahead of the public health crisis, according to the city's Department of Transportation. In early April, traffic was down roughly 60 percent from normal levels.
While subway ridership has rebounded from an all-time low, it’s still down roughly 78 percent from 2019 levels — with just more than one million riders using the system on weekdays. Buses have recovered more quickly, but ridership is still down 50 percent.
The Regional Planning Association estimates that if Manhattan regains two-thirds of the jobs it lost, as many as 25 percent more people will drive to work compared to pre-pandemic levels, and that mass transit ridership will still be substantially less than the numbers seen last year.
“That’s one of key things people need to understand — the traffic is going to come back faster than other parts of life,” said Tom Wright, president and chief executive officer of the RPA. “And that’s a problem.”
Anecdotally, many New Yorkers have shared their experience of buying a new car because of the pandemic — either out of fear of riding the city’s mass transit system or to get out of a dense city where personal space is hard to come by. Streetsblog reports that car ridership has rebounded even faster in the outer boroughs.
The shifts in personal transit habits come at a tenuous time for the city.
The MTA is projecting a fiscal deficit of $10.3 billion over the next two years and has repeatedly called on the federal government to provide it an additional $3.9 billion to get it through the end of the year. It has frozen its $54.8 billion capital plan and warned service cuts and fare hikes may be necessary without federal assistance.
Transit advocacy groups have painted a more stark picture of what could happen without a federal bailout.
In a recent report, the Riders Alliance said the MTA will have to eliminate key services, potentially shutting down half of its subway lines. Other options could entail only providing local subway service or shutting down commuter rail and bus lines to leave the subway system largely intact. The group based its analysis off of the 2008 recession, when the MTA had to make $400 million in cuts — resulting in it cutting the V and W subway lines and eliminating or curtailing 110 bus routes.
“When the MTA is telling you they won’t survive — that all options are on the table — these are the kind of scenarios we should be envisioning,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy director of the Riders Alliance.
At the same time, several city-run transit programs were the victim of budget cuts made in response to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic — including a $65 million cut to a program that provided discounted MetroCards to low-income residents, a $3 million reduction to the Green Wave plan to add protected bike lanes and a $5.7 million cut to an initiative to increase bus speeds.
Environmental advocates fear the worst — a decline in subway and bus service that further deters already reluctant New Yorkers from returning to mass transit and a rise in personal car use that could become a more difficult habit to break over time.
“If people are not getting on the trains because service is bad, they’re worried about social distancing, it’s not going to come back. And if it’s not going to come back, [increased traffic] is a self-reinforcing thing,” said Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “If the mass transit system is on life support, we’re looking at potentially a really dangerous situation.”
Some say they would like to see greater urgency from the de Blasio administration, which has been slow to adapt its streets to accommodate bikers and pedestrians. Those calls have escalated in months as the city has witnessed a biking boom, with a 13 percent spike in bike ridership on East River crossings and a combined 25 percent rise in bike use on Prospect Park West, Pulaski Bridge and Kent Avenue in Brooklyn.
“I do think we’re not using our streets as efficiently as we could be and we’re not prioritizing people and how we get around,” Tighe said.
De Blasio, loath to ride the subway and regularly shuttled around in a hybrid SUV, has often taken a windshield approach to transit. Early on in the pandemic, he showed reluctance to come up with a coordinated mass transit plan, voicing an expectation that New Yorkers will drive more and advising residents to “improvise” their commutes. Many of his press conferences have touted the perks of his regular suspension of alternate side parking, though most New Yorkers don’t own cars.
He has shifted his approach to transit after facing pressure from other local officials pushing to bolster the city’s options at the height of the pandemic.
Following much resistance, De Blasio opened up 67 miles of streets to pedestrians and cyclists — a move that came after City Council Speaker Corey Johnson introduced a bill to free up 75 miles of asphalt.
He unveiled a plan for 20 miles of new bus lanes after facing pressure from elected officials and the MTA, though the authority has pushed for the city to go farther and add 60 miles of lanes.
“It’s been a lot of empty promises,” Pearlstein said. “It’s been a little bit of a sham to see the mayor cut his bus and bike programs while saying essentially, ‘oh more people are going to drive around.’”
While acknowledging that the fears of congestion and increase in car use are “very real,” Johnson said the city can still promote sustainable transit.
“This budget was painful but we can't let an economic downturn push us away from our efforts to reimagine how we get around our city,” Johnson said in an email. “Even in lean times there's plenty we can do to make it easier to get around New York without a car including pop-up bike lanes and bus lanes and expanding the open streets program so it fits into our transportation network better.”
Dan Zarrilli, the chief climate policy adviser to the mayor, said the city is prioritizing climate justice in its recovery plan “to secure a livable future for all New Yorkers.”
The city’s emissions output has largely stayed the same since de Blasio took office in 2014, decreasing just 3 percent overall. But the dataset is incomplete — City Hall hasn’t updated its emissions figures since 2017, despite a local law requiring an annual inventory.
While environmental advocates have focused their efforts in recent years on targeting the largest source of emissions — city buildings — they acknowledge transit could become a greater concern in the Covid-19 era.