New York City Rides Out an Unprecedented Transit Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic struck the largest public transit system in the U.S. just as it was beginning to recover from a long-standing funding and service crisis. Back in 2017, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a “state of emergency” for the New York City subway system and the agency that runs it, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Aging infrastructure, political squabbles and crowdinghad pushed the system to the brink, and the MTA embarked on a$54 billion campaign to improve service, with new subway cars and buses, refurbished tracks and stations, and modernized signals.  

But progress on those investments has been dramatically disrupted by Covid-19, which saw MTA ridership plunge by more than 90%. As the city went into lockdown in March 2020, New Yorkers were faced with an unprecedented mass transit challenge: how to save the system that keeps the city alive.

In a series of audio reports for Bloomberg Radio, Renita Young chronicles the MTA’s struggles since the pandemic began, and explores the role that mass transit plays in racial equity in America. 

Episode 1: Making Room

 New York’s transit system was designed for volume: On a normal pre-pandemic workday, more than 7 million people ride subways, buses and trains throughout the five boroughs. But when social distancing became a critical public health measure, passenger crowding become a source of fear and anxiety. In this episode, Danny Harris, executive director of the transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, talks about how this tension has further exposed the transit system’s disparities around income and race. “The MTA has to ensure that people who are going to use the subways and buses feel safe in doing so,” he says. “That’s clearly about public health, but what we’re also hearing now is that communities of color need to feel safe in being on and around modes of public transit.”

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  • Bloomberg DaybreakBloomberg Daybreak: October 19, 2020 – Hour 2 (Radio)Bloomberg Daybreak: October 19, 2020 – Hour 2 (Radio)00:43:35

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    Episode 2: The Financial Hit

    As the economic impact of the coronavirus ripples through the global economy, city and state budgets crater, and the MTA faces “a financial four-alarm fire,” says MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye. After lockdowns ease, some passengers return. But will it be enough — and what else can MTA leaders do to recover losses?  “You cannot cut down service beyond a certain point,” says Vikram Rai, head of municipal strategy at Citigroup, “because this is the backbone of the tri-state economy.”
     

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  • Episodes 3 and 4: Transit’s Role in Racial Justice

    Martin Luther King, Jr. once called urban public transportation “a genuine civil rights issue.” More than 50 years later, protests against racial inequality during the summer of 2020 are focusing new attention on access to transit, and the key role that it plays in racial justice. “It really allows people to get from point A to point B, not just to jobs, but to metropolitan opportunities,” saysDarnell Grisby, director of Policy Development at the American Public Transportation Association. “Until we can make sure we have the proper investment levels in operations to make sure that everyone in the metropolitan area has access to those opportunities, our city and our communities and our people will never reach their full potential.” 
     

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  • Part 2: In the second part of his conversation about public transportation and racial justice, APTA’s Darnell Grisby talks about the connection between transit routes and access to essential resources like fresh food and better-paying jobs. “When people speak about lifting oneself up by their own bootstraps,” he says, “it’s another example of how those bootstraps may not even exist if we have not made the right investments for people to even get to work and to fulfill their destinies as part of a community.” 
     

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  • Episode 5: Who Will Get Left Behind?

    As the pandemic crisis heads into autumn with no end in sight — and with hopes for any federal help fading — Grisby and Harris look at the difficult road ahead for transit agencies like New York’s MTA: “That needs to be our goal as we move out of this crisis,” says Harris. “Transit can no longer hold people back, especially poor, low-income communities of color that have been left behind in transportation.”

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  • Episode 6: The Essential Workers 

    The Metropolitan Transportation Authority still doesn’t have the money to operate in 2021; like many transit agencies across the U.S., it faces the likelihood of cutting thousands of jobs and making painful service cuts. For essential workers who have depended on trains and buses to get to their jobs since the pandemic began, those service reductions could make a difficult and anxious commute even worse. 

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