An abandoned subway is a tragedy for New York

Riding the Q train back to Brooklyn from Manhattan one evening this week, my subway carriage was boarded by a man who kept on glaring intently at the other passengers, swigging from a bottle of AriZona Iced Tea and calling out, “Repent, repent, repent”. When he shouted “Go quickly, before it’s too late” as the train stopped at Atlantic Avenue station, I took his advice.

My experience is one reason why many New York professionals have not returned to their desks in Manhattan since the pandemic. Eric Adams, the city’s mayor, this week urged Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and others to set an example by riding the subway. “We’re telling our corporate leaders, ‘Hey, get on the train!’” he said in an FT interview.

Good luck with that, to judge by conversations in Brooklyn this week. One friend had endured a ride in which a homeless man urinated in her carriage. I was also told to stand by station pillars to avoid being shoved in front of a train, like a female executive who died last January in a Times Square station. Welcome to New York, indeed.

Buses are a public service, but subways are more. They are part of a city’s fabric, literally bored through its depths. When a metro service works well, it denotes not only efficiency but social cohesion: everyone rides the subway. When it deteriorates, the city’s spirit declines.

That is why the long-delayed opening of London’s Elizabeth line next week is significant. After many problems and budget overruns, the £19bn east-west addition to the tube and the suburban rail network is a fillip to a city under post-pandemic strain. As an east Londoner and subway aficionado, I have looked forward to it for years.

Although London’s tube is better off than New York’s subway just now, they face the same problem. The pandemic exposed an awkward and costly fact: people travel to work when they have to, but will avoid it when they can. The services are filled with construction, hospital and retail workers who have to use them, while white-collar workers stay at home.

To be fair to the New York subway, it felt quite familiar from a few years ago on my journey into the city that afternoon: grimy, but functional. It had the usual orange bucket seats and screeching turns, but there was nothing very intimidating about it. We swayed over the rusty Manhattan Bridge and I alighted at a shiny station on the five-year-old Second Avenue line.

It was not the Hibiya line, the spotless and meticulously ordered subway on which I commuted briefly from Nakameguro to central Tokyo, but it did the job. Now, the question is for whom it does that job: many carriages are half full, with fewer office employees tapping emails on phones, and the streets of midtown Manhattan lack the old melée of pedestrians.

Only eight per cent of Manhattan office employees have returned five days a week, and 38 per cent are now commuting part-time, according to one survey. That has knocked a hole in the finances of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which faces a $16bn funding deficit, while Transport for London has received £5bn in emergency government aid.

This has profound implications. The outer borough revival and repopulation of New York from the 1980s onwards was partly enabled by subways being cleaned up and made safer. Brooklyn brownstones would have been less desirable if the owners had feared their commute.

But the subway revival, with usage nearly doubling between 1977 and 2015 to 1.8bn riders annually, was not just a perk for the privileged. Most of those riders were not bankers hopping from Brooklyn Heights to Wall Street, but lower paid workers from the South Bronx, Harlem and outer Brooklyn. Making their journeys safe helped the economy to thrive.

Aside from the subway, the city is experiencing an echo of the past in higher crime rates. Two police officers were killed in Harlem in January and robberies and gun violence have risen. On the numbers, it hardly matches history — the 13,800 robberies last year were a fraction of the 100,000 in the city in 1990 — but fear matters.

“Until we get people back on mass transit at close to pre-pandemic levels, we will not repopulate lower Manhattan,” says Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Offices will gradually empty out, and the city’s economy and tax base will be harmed.

Beyond economics, an empty subway is a symptom of a city pulling apart. The classic US city of the 1960s and 1970s was shaped like a ring doughnut, with people and wealth leaving the centre. For Westchester in those days read affluent Brooklyn today: filled with an elite professional class that avoids the city’s core.

The tragedy of the commons is the overuse of a shared resource, but the tragedy of the New York subway is the opposite: an underused resource, made vulnerable to cutbacks and further damage. People from different worlds once travelled together on the subway; many now remain in their own.

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