As New York City prepares to open again after suffering one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world, officials are trying to avoid a new disaster – the gridlock that could be the result if many continue to avoid public transport and turn to cars instead .
Prior to the crisis, eight million people in the region each weekday – including over 50 percent of the city’s population – used a complex network of subways, buses and railways that has long been a lively symbol of America’s largest metropolis. After the outbreak, however, the ridership hit when workers stopped at home to slow down the spread of the virus.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees most of the system, said on Friday it would roll out a plan to lure riders back, including ramping up service to reduce congestion, deploying police to enforce mesh use and station workers across the subway to report overcrowding.
Transit officials also urge the city to mandate that larger companies create flexible start times and extend plans from home to ease congestion when businesses open again.
Still, New York officials’ efforts to restore public transport confidence were a blow when The Centers for Disease Control unexpectedly released guidelines on Thursday urging people to drive to work alone, rather than taking public transport, when states open again.
M.T.A. spun quickly at C.D.C.
“Encouraging people, especially those without cars and in congested areas like New York, not to take public transport is wrong,” said Patrick J. Foye, president of M.T.A., controlled by Prime Minister Andrew M. Cuomo. “Transit is, and has long been, the safest way to move around in any city. Our transit and bus system is cleaner and safer than it has been in history, as we clean and disinfect around the clock. “
The challenges of public transport underscore how the outbreak has left many of New York’s long-standing rhythms and routines in disarray, suggesting that the path to a full recovery will be long and difficult. Since the outbreak hit, the subway ridership has only dropped about 90 percent.
In May, nearly half of the New York people said they would avoid public transport when the city is revived, according to a survey conducted by Elucd, a computer research company and Industrious, a workplace operator.
Even Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged that public transport may not be the preferred first option when the city may open again on June 8. “Some people will be comfortable on mass transit, some aren’t,” de Blasio told reporters. “You can see people using their cars more in the short term.”
The mayor has so far resisted taking measures to prevent increased traffic or encourage commuters who are careful with the metro to use other modes of transport, such as bicycles.
“There is not always a chance to help people all the time when it comes to their transportation needs,” de Blasio said. “People will need to improvise and I think they will.”
Cities around the world face similar challenges. Social distancing is difficult for public transport systems that are designed to effectively move large numbers of people, but they are considered crucial to opening businesses again and starting stalled economies.
In the United States, the first predictor of whether people are comfortable going back to work is if they take public transport, according to Elucd.
“The biggest concern people have for trying to work is not about policies or routines, it’s about the behavior of others that will jeopardize them, especially strangers on tight trains and buses,” said Michael Simon, Elucd’s CEO.
The problem is particularly acute in New York City, which suffers from the worst traffic in the country.
Already there are worrying signs that more New Yorkers are climbing back into cars: In recent days, traffic across the city’s bridges and tunnels has increased to within 60 to 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to city officials – a turnaround earlier this month, when the city streets were just empty.
Between April 20 and May 17, demand for monthly parking from new users almost doubled on SpotHero, a popular parking app compared to before the pandemic.
To avert any gridlock, some transportation experts have urged the city to adopt a temporary ban on cars with only one person from entering parts of Manhattan and rolling out new bike lanes along commuter-heavy thoroughfares.
New York is already the first major American city to plan to charge a driver for entry into the busiest parts of Manhattan as a way to raise money for public transportation and coax people out of their cars. The program was scheduled to begin early next year, but officials have said it will likely be pushed back.
At present, the city’s limited cycleway network does not have the capacity to absorb a flood of people cycling to work, and it can push them into more dangerous streets.
In April, Mr. de Blasio proposed cuts to the city’s bicycle field expansion program as part of his original budget and abandoned a pilot project to close streets for cars, citing police resources.
Later, he abruptly changed the lane, announcing that the city would temporarily close 100-mile streets for cars – or about one percent of the city’s 8,000-mile road – during the pandemic. Some of these street closures can become permanent.
“In New York, we hesitate, we make false starts and are not strategic,” said Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group.
Some cities that came out of lockdowns before New York have already seen an increase in car traffic: In early April, when Chinese officials lifted home-home orders, several major cities, such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou, experienced higher levels of rush hour compared to the previous year.
In Europe, cities have taken aggressive measures to avoid traffic congestion by offering alternatives to returning commuters.
Brussels, London, Milan and Paris have announced plans to add miles of new bike lanes, while London also has raised congestion rates for drivers entering the city center.
“Usually people are so used to how the streets have been so they can’t imagine them any other way, but right now people’s minds are open,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, a former New York City Transportation Commissioner who has worked with cities that Milan on their transport programs after the pandemic. “You’ve had this moment to rebuild our streets and make the changes we wanted to see in the future become reality now.”
This possibility is underlined by developments in New York, where people have flocked to other modes of transportation.
In May, the number of trips at Revel, a sharing service for electric scooters in Brooklyn, Queens and parts of Manhattan, jumped by over 200 percent compared to the pre-pandemic. Bike shops have experienced record sales with long-time customers.
Active membership at Citi Bike, the city’s bike share program, rose to over 157,000 in May – a celebration of the system.
Kendall Miller, a 33-year-old business manager at a real estate company, sometimes used his bike for training. But when the pandemic hit, she started cycling on errands and seeing friends. When she returns to her office, she plans to cycle to avoid the subway.
“Right now, the only way I do it is to ride a bike there,” she said.
The city’s transport commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, said the de Blasio administration is committed to investigating how the city can benefit from the latest change to bikes and other forms of “micro mobility.”
“Certainly this is a critical time,” Trottenberg said. “How do we open our city and our economy while keeping the positive things we have recently experienced – streets that are safer, quieter and better able to serve bus drivers, cyclists and pedestrians?”
C.D.C. later changed its guidelines to encourage cycling, walking and driving with household members and to drive alone.
While car sales in New York and across the country have fallen during the pandemic, as restrictions ease and dealers are allowed to open industry analysts say low interest rates and cheap gas can attract buyers.
“We’re still pretty deep into a pandemic, and the question remains, does another set of buyers turn up to buy cars?” said David Steinberg, the founder of Foureyes, a company that works with car dealers. “The reality is that we probably don’t know it yet.”
On social media, there are already many discussions among New Yorkers considering buying cars.
In Astoria, Queens, Nina Fiore said she and her husband were considering buying a car to use on this weekend’s trips after talking to friends who drive to parks “where they can better distance themselves and let the kids play and run around.”
And if her husband has to return to work in Manhattan before a coronavirus vaccine is available, they would prefer that he drive rather than take the subway.
Even Doug Gordon, a Brooklyn-based bike advocate and host of the “The War on Cars” podcast, says he and his wife can buy a car to go out in the summer with their two kids and give the family travel flexibility.
“It’s surprising to me, too,” he said. “Three months ago, I was contrasted right now – it’s a completely different conversation.”
If the city does not take ambitious measures soon to redevelop its streets, it will lose a unique opportunity to diversify how New York people get around, experts say. After almost every disaster that pulled riders from the subway – the September 11 attack, hurricanes and train shutdowns – the New York commute eventually returned to normal before the crisis.
“During my 50-year career in New York, there have been several moments” like this one, said Samuel I. Schwartz, a consultant and former city traffic commissioner. “We should take this opportunity in this moment. The question will be whether there is the political will to do so. “