After two years of sharp growth, ridership on New York City’s crowded subways grew by less than 1 percent last year, according to preliminary figures from the MTA.
It could be that lower gasoline prices are making car travel cheaper, and it could be that packed trains, often running late, have deterred riders, experts say.
“They are over capacity and they can’t pack any more people in,” said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign.
“They’re honest when they say they’re trying. They have platform guys shouting, ‘Get on the car!’ But they don’t have many tricks left up their sleeve because they’re at capacity,” Russianoff said.
Subway rides totaled 1.762 billion in 2015, an increase of 0.6 percent, or about 11 million more rides than in 2014, Metropolitan Transportation Authority figures show. Ridership in 2014 had been up by 2.6 percent from 2013 and was up 3.3 percent from the year before that, the preliminary figures show. The MTA counts rides, not riders.
Ridership on city buses was down 2.5 percent to 650 million annual rides in 2015, from 667 million in 2014, the MTA figures show.
Official figures will be released later this spring, an agency spokesman said, and it will not comment until then.
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While subway ridership was flat and bus ridership down, MTA statistics show a 4 percent jump in vehicles using its eight bridges and tunnels last year, up by 11.5 million to 297.7 million.
“There is no doubt gas prices are increasing bridge and tunnel traffic because they are increasing automobile use nationwide,” said Alec Slatky, a legislative analyst for AAA New York.
A gallon of regular gas on Long Island, for example, dipped slightly under $2 a gallon in February, down from a high of $4.036 cents a gallon on July 2, 2014, according to AAA.
And as gasoline prices were dropping, the base bus and subway fare went up 25 cents to $2.75 in March 2015, the fifth increase in eight years.
“Federal figures show we Americans drove 3.15 trillion miles last year, from 3.04 trillion in 2014. That’s 107 billion more miles in 2015 than 2014,” he said.
The shift in ridership patterns was also evident nationwide, with a 1.2 percent decrease in trips on mass transit during the first nine months of 2015, according to the American Public Transportation Association, which cited lower fuel costs as the prime reason.
Bill Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said he did not think cheap gas had that much of an impact on subway ridership, but bad service did.
“Delays are way up and performance has not been what riders would like to see,” Henderson said. “It depends on the line, but most of the lines absolutely maxed out on capacity.”
Preliminary performance figures for the year, released last month, showed subway cars broke down more frequently and trains took longer to finish their runs.
“The increase [in ridership] may be slower than it has in the past, but still going up, even if you’re only increasing by half a percent a year. That’s something you can’t accommodate,” Henderson said.
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There might be some relief on the heavily traveled Lexington Avenue line in Manhattan if the first section of the Second Avenue subway opens as scheduled in December.
That will add three new stations between 63rd Street and 96th Street in what the MTA hopes will eventually be a line that runs from the Wall Street area to 125th Street.
Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the tri-State Transportation Campaign, said it was possible some people were turning to automobiles as the subways have gotten crowded.
She urged wider use of bus-only lanes and other steps to increase bus ridership.
“Improving bus service citywide is the only way to quickly add capacity,” she said.
year total rides %change from prior year
2015 1.762 billion +0.6%
2014 1.751 billion +2.6%
2013 1.709 billion +3.3%
2012 1.654 billion +0.8%
2011 1.640 billion +2.2%
2010 1.604 billion +1.5%
2009 1.579 billion -2.7%
Average weekday rides
2015 5.65 million
2014 5.59 million