Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Existential Threat

By David G. Young

Miami Beach, FL, July 26, 2022 --  

The rise of the home office means bad news for the future of urban rail.

When the New York State Comptroller sounded the alarm about an "existential" threat to mass transit, the warning came at an unlikely time.  Gas  prices are hovering at near record highs, something that would normally push more people to use more mass transit.  Yet in New York City, weekday subway ridership is down 41 percent from what it was before the pandemic, and corresponding revenues have plummeted.1

New York City is not alone.  In Washington DC things are even worse. Weekday rail ridership in May was down a stunning 68 percent of pre pandemic levels.2  Metro train cars in on the Orange Line passing the White House and Congress in the nation's capital often have more riders showing mental health symptoms than riders in office attire.  Similar ridership declines have plagued rail systems across the country.

Yet not all public transit has faced large declines.  Hop on Miami Dade’s S bus and you will be lucky to get a seat.  The bus is filled with Haitian immigrants in maintenance uniforms, young Latinas in scrubs and elderly Cuban-Americans heading home from appointments. The line runs past many thousands of working-class jobs from the Aventura Mall north of Miami Beach past countless hotels and the port to the Omni transit terminal downtown. In sprawling cities like Miami,  Los Angeles and Houston, the public transportation systems, both bus and rail, have always been the domain of blue and pink collar workers, while professionals prefer to commute by automobile.

The pain caused by America's biggest transit systems is caused by an elephant in the room: most professionals aren't commuting into the office anymore.  Two and a half years after the pandemic started, despite desk pounding by back-to-the-office-loving managers, most professionals still work from home. And given that many employers have indicated they will continue remote work arrangements indefinitely, things won't be going back to the way they were any time soon.

That doesn't affect ridership as much in places like Miami much where office workers rarely use public transportation.  But it causes devastating losses to Washington DC, New York, Chicago and Boston where office workers have made up a big share of rail passengers. Surging gas prices are more likely to make these professionals take their next meeting on Zoom than hop on a half-empty subway car dominated by the mentally ill.

This doesn't mean the end to public transit, but it does mean that America's urban rail operators must adjust to this new reality. In New York, traffic at subway stations in working class neighborhoods has reached 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels.3. This shows there is still demand for these transit systems, just by a different group of people. New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority will need to cut staff and service -- reducing trains and perhaps entire lines on routes heavily used by office workers so it can maintain ones used by the working class. The same is true for Washington, Boston and Chicago.

For other cities like Los Angeles and Miami that built urban rail lines in hope of attracting professionals in the future, dreams will have to be adjust to the new reality. While Miami's bus ridership declined by a relatively modest 28 percent between May 2019 and May of this year, its office-centric downtown MetroMover rail ridership declined by 40 percent. 4,5, a rate similar to New York's subway system. Many expensive rail systems won't be able to justify their costs in the near future if rush hours filled with professionally-attired passengers aren't packing the trains on the way to office canyons.

This is bad news for urban residents who have long enjoyed the ability to hop on the subway or elevated train to run errands, dine out, or go see a show. Taxpayers have long subsidized urban rail under the justification that it would be impossible to move so many workers into downtowns at rush hour by road. But today, most of the office workers aren't going into the office anymore, and aren't paying fares into the system. Asking taxpayers to keep all those trains running to serve relatively wealthy urban pleasure riders will be increasingly hard to justify.


1. New York State Comptroller, Existential Questions Facing National Public Transit Systems Create New Fiscal Pressures for MTA, June 2022

2. WTOP News, Metro Sees Ridership Increase but Remains Lower than Before Pandemic, May 9, 2022

3. AMNY, Subway Ridership as High as 90% of Pre-COVID Levels in Some Working-Class NYC Neighborhoods: MTA, May 25, 2022

4. Miami-Date Country Transportation and Public Works Ridership Technical Report, May 2022

5. Miami-Date Country Transportation and Public Works Ridership Technical Report, May 2019; May bus ridership declined from 4.3 million to 3.1 million between these reports and MetroMover ridership declined from 755 thousand to 454 thousand.