Gov. Cuomo took a moment out of his bad week to do one good thing for Gotham: announce the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority will reduce overnight subway closures from four hours to two.
New York City won’t be back to normal until the subways are open all the time, but hopefully, the COVID experiment in cutting off service will forever end the perennial calls from good-government groups to save money by shutting transit.
The subways’ 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. closure, now shortened to between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., started in May, making the Big Apple’s grim outlook for a fast recovery even grimmer. Even during the worst days of the pandemic, 11,000 people relied on overnight trains to get to and from work.
These commuters lost out because of Mayor de Blasio’s inability to prevent an estimated 2,000 homeless people from using transit for shelter. Shutting down the subways didn’t fix that problem, as the recent stabbing murders of two homeless people and the wounding of two others by a fifth homeless person made clear.
If an unstated goal of the shutdowns was to reduce subway crime, the murders show it didn’t work. What difference does it make that the killings occurred around midnight rather than at 2 a.m.?
The closures didn’t prevent trespassers who commit assaults against transit workers. An assailant threw a transit worker to the tracks just after Christmas, even though the station was closed. With 472 stations, most with multiple entrances, the subway is impossible to “close.”
Riders, workers and police suffered 62 assaults over the past six weeks, the same number as last year during the same time frame, even though subways were much busier last January and February.
Finally: In May, food-delivery worker Mamadou Diallo was shot to death by a robber in Harlem, while waiting for the bus instead of the train. Cutting off basic services to low-paid workers is a strange way to try to cut crime.
Sure, closing the subways makes it easier to deep-clean stations and trains. But most trains aren’t in use overnight, anyway, leaving them free for cleaning. The MTA can cordon off parts of a station for scrubbing.
And it makes construction work impossible to “close.” But 24-hour service doesn’t prevent the MTA from shutting down service on one line, for weeks or months, so it can do work on that line.
Finally, and the most important for the long-term picture: Overnight shutdowns don’t save money. To give customers alternate service, the MTA had to add 344 buses to its regular 235 during these hours. But it still had to move trains back and forth on a normal schedule to get its own workers around.
Shutdowns won’t save money when the pandemic is over, either. Before COVID-19, nearly 15,000 people left Manhattan during the 1 a.m. hour alone. They did so on 51 trains.
Without trains, you’d need nearly 400 buses to move the same number of people, meaning higher labor costs. Another 9,000 people normally take trains into Manhattan during the 4 a.m. hour. During the pandemic, more than 10,000 people took buses in September during the 4 a.m. hour, compared with 3,000 in April, before the MTA shut the subways, meaning many had migrated from the far more efficient trains.
Absent a pandemic, there is no sustained overnight “shift,” like 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. or midnight to 8 a.m., during which people stay home. When we aren’t locked in our apartments, nearly 100,000 people regularly use the subways during the witching hours. Restaurants, bars, clubs, concert venues all depend on it.
Close the subways at 1, and people will leave the bar at 12:20, for fear of missing the last train. And some will drive drunk or speed on roads with little nighttime traffic, killing themselves or others. More night-owl workers will buy cars and use them for daytime trips, too, causing more traffic.
Other cities shut down subway service overnight, sure. Have you ever tried to make an 11 p.m. dinner reservation in any of those places? Before the pandemic, London had launched 24-hour “Night Tube” service, with the goal of injecting life into its nightlife.
Before the pandemic, nighttime shutdowns were one of those ideas whose time had never come — for good reason.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.