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Who’s to blame for MTA’s declining ridership?

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The MTA says ride-hailing services caused this year’s dip in ridership

Incident On NYC’s Subway Snarls Morning Commute Into Manhattan Drew Angerer/Getty Images

After years of growth, subway ridership has been on the decline these past couple of years, falling from 1.762 billion rides in 2015 to 1.727 billion total trips in 2017. But why? Is everyone trying to get their steps in? Are New Yorkers slowly being raptured? Or is service just that bad?

There’s no smoking gun exactly, but the MTA has now joined a chorus of voices that has blamed ride-hailing apps like Uber for the subway’s declining ridership. An executive with New York City Transit gave a presentation to the board of the state’s beleaguered transit agency this week, in which the declining ridership figures were pinned on a 13.1 percent growth in taxi and for-hire-vehicle rides, according to the Wall Street Journal. A chart shown to the board also showed an almost symmetrical growth in FHV increase and subway ridership decrease over 2016 and 2017.

The MTA’s findings come on the heels of a similar report earlier this year from the New York City Economic Development Corporation that showed riders in Brooklyn and Queens were especially likely to ditch the subway for hired cars.

Ride-hailing services and their impact on public transit ridership has been a hot topic for the past couple of years. Last year, then-acting MTA chair Fernando Ferrer blamed Uber specifically for dropping subway ridership, in the run-up to a report that wound up concluding that a huge shift in riders from public transit to for-hire-vehicles increased congestion in Manhattan.

Even before that report, there were fears that Uber and other ride-hailing services could suck the life out of public transit, shifting those systems to a kind of privatized version of their former selves. In a 2015 Gizmodo piece written by Curbed’s Urbanism editor, Alissa Walker, it was posited that this wasn’t “really a concern in a place like New York City where ridership is very healthy and the subways are the best way to get to many places,” a prediction made right as subway ridership plateaued.

But even with the impact of ride-hailing services, there’s a larger issue at play—why are those services seeing an uptick in riders? This is where the MTA’s long, sustained meltdown comes in; the agency hasn’t done itself any favors by failing to provide commuters with efficient ride that gets you from one place to another with a minimum of delays or ceiling collapses.

And according to the WSJ, the MTA “attributes some of the decline in ridership to its own service outages.” (Emphasis ours.) One board member asked NYCT to look into the correlation between those outages and the dip in ridership, per the report.

Ben Kabak from Second Avenue Sagas offered this analysis:

By and large, the granular ridership figures show that the decline is generally concentrated in the off-peak and weekend slots. Anecdotally, more New Yorkers simply aren’t leaving their neighborhoods via subways on the weekend, and the city’s economy will be worse off for it. It’s also safe to assume that some people will rely on bikes and bike share while others will use for-hire vehicles or private automobiles. Thus, as subway service grows less reliable and ridership declines, the streets will become more clogged with cars (and the congestion and air quality will be worse).

And amid questions about what the Subway Action Plan has actually done (or if it was even designed to do anything measurable), the agency is in a bit of a death spiral—it’s making less money from riders than expected, while considering raising the fares for the people who are still taking the train and bus. (All the more reason to get the Fast Foward plan funded, and soon.)