Shootings, Blackouts and MetroCards: Here's What 40 Years of Data Says About the MTA

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Snake on a train

Researchers at New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation compiled four decades of subway ridership data and found, among other things, that subway ridership is directly affected by key events in the city and how much the MTA invests in the nation's largest transit system. 


They began their report in 1975, or as one of the authors, Mitchell Moss, describes it, "the bleakest year in New York's history ... when people had given up hope in New York."

It's also the year president Gerald Ford announced he would not offer a federal bailout to prevent the city from defaulting on it's debt.

April, 1973, graffiti continues to plague subway stations and cars.

The year 1975 may have been bad for the city's budget, but 1977 was the nadir for ridership. That was the year of an electricity blackout and the Son of Sam serial killer. Subways were a wreck. With frequent breakdowns and graffiti-covered cars, ridership was down to 917 million a year.  That’s coming from a high of two billion in 1946.

The Bronx, which was burning, saw the largest decline in ridership around that time — a drop of 21 million rides a year over the next decade. In Brooklyn, ridership dropped by 13.5 million. 

People huddle against the information kiosk in New York’s Grand Central Station, July 14, 1977 after being stranded by a power failure in the city, its boroughs and some neighboring areas.

But 1977 was also the start of the city’s turnaround. 

"The state of New York realized that without a good MTA, businesses couldn’t survive," Moss said. "If businesses couldn’t employ people, people weren’t going to live here."

Gov. Hugh Carey brought in financial wiz Richard Ravitch to help straighten out the city’s finances, and then in 1979 appointed him head of the MTA.

"Almost everyday there was an incident," Ravitch said, speaking to WNYC in 2015. "A train stuck between stations a breakdown, a fire, an inordinate delay, people backed up the stairs in subway stations ... It was increasingly breaking down and it was reaching a point where I thought safety was in jeopardy."

He put together a $55 billion capital plan to buy new equipment and improve maintenance, but crime in the city continued to be a major problem for the next decade, dragging down ridership.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Richard Ravitch

The fear crystallized for the public in 1984, in one person, Bernie Goetz. 

Goetz, who was white, shot four young black men after he said they were hassling him over $5.

After nine days on the run, he faced charges of attempted murder and reckless endangerment in a sensational trial.

During a taped police interview, he raved that he was the real victim and had grown tired of being harassed on the subway. "Now forget about what happened on that subway to me," Goetz said. "That’s just one thing this happens all the time. The subway system itself is a disaster.”

Goetz was found not guilty of the shootings.  

Two New York City detectives take Bernhard H. Goetz from a Concord, N.H. police station early Thursday morning, Jan. 3, 1984, to return him to New York where he will face charges.

Six years later, in 1990, a tourist from Utah named Brian Watkins was stabbed to death on the subway near Times Square. He was the 18th person killed on the subway that year and there would be eight more killings before the end of the year. That was the same year transit police hired a young chief named Bill Bratton to take control. Bratton brought his Boston brogue, and a new approach to crime.

"Like the rest of New York City, transit authorities, the subways were in rough shape at that time, a lot of crime," Bratton said in a recent interview with the National Law Enforcement Museum.

"Not only broken windows, but it was basically zero tolerance," NYU professor Moss said. Bratton cracked down hard on misdemeanor offenses like jumping turnstiles and public urination. "Up until then the police department did enforce the law, but they were much more reactive. Here, the police were much more proactive."

Bill Bratton, chief of the New York Transit Police, talks to a homeless man in New York, Nov. 21, 1991, on a routine tour of the New York City subway system.

And by the end of 1994, crime was dropping, the population was rising, and ridership hit 1 billion. There were notable increases at a few stations, like in Queens where five stations along the J, Z lines saw ridership increase by 50 percent. Williamsburg, Brooklyn also saw a 30 percent increase in ridership, gentrification foretold. 

And then came another game changer. The MTA moved to electronic turnstiles and in 1997 and introduced the MetroCard. 

"The MetroCard was a revolution for New York," Moss said. 

He believed there were three reasons the MetroCard took off right away: pricing was invisible, the unlimited MetroCard, and families could share one card.

"What it did was it allowed mass transit to be used for much more than just journey to work, it became part of the social fabric of the city," he said.

The end of the token era.

The NYU study found that the decade from 1995 to 2004 saw the greatest increase in annual ridership ever, up by 40 percent to 1.4 billion. Moss believe the MetroCard was a major factor in this uptick.

But he says the biggest differences in ridership depended on what time of day people were riding.

"The city’s energy is reflected in the use of the subway system," he said. "The subways are crowded from six in the morning to midnight. It used to be the peak hour ended at 7."

But that nine-year period wasn't all roses. The same era also saw the bursting of the dot-com bubble. And 9/11. Ridership in Manhattan declined from 2001-2003, especially in the financial district.

But as the city recovered, those years became just a bump in the road. The subway system hit 1.7 billion rides in 2015. And there the modern record stands.

Today, the system is working at peak capacity and ridership has even declined a little. Moss is reluctant to chalk it up to poor service (after looking at the data, he said a modest decline could simply be an increased number of station shutdown on weekends for repairs). 

Now, the MTA is planning to replace the MetroCard, maybe with a smart-phone app, or something akin to an EZPass, that doesn’t require a swipe at all.

As history has shown, ridership responds to increases in quality of service, and declines when the system stands still.

Commuter crowded on the L train as service is operating at near peak capacity.