Three decades ago, in his book Subway Lives, Jim Dwyer reflected on the seemingly invincible quality of New York City’s transit system: “The subways cannot be hurt,” the late columnist wrote. “The city collapses, now and then, but the train keeps running.”
In early April of last year, New York City appeared on the verge of collapse. Hundreds of residents were dying from the coronavirus each day, as surging cases pushed the city’s hospital system to the brink. Those who ventured out of their homes found an eerie, empty streetscape. While the trains continued to rumble underground, they too were virtually deserted.
On April 5th, the day that Mayor Bill de Blasio warned the city would run out of ventilators, fewer than 300,000 people swiped into the subway system. A month earlier, the MTA was recording well over 5 million riders on an average weekday. By early May, for the first time in its history, 24/7 subway service was scaled back to 20 hours a day.
As Governor Andrew Cuomo lifts New York’s remaining COVID restrictions, the subway continues to be, as Dwyer put it in 1991, a “sprawling register of the city’s temperature.” The overnight closures are now gone, ridership is creeping up, and a generous federal stimulus has staved off the worst case financial tailspin.
For the first time in over a year, many freshly-inoculated straphangers are returning to their commutes. They’re joining thousands of others — particularly those in low-income communities of color, which also bore the brunt of the virus — who never left. Some New Yorkers, meanwhile, say they’ve given up on the subway altogether, citing rising crime or new transportation habits.
On Monday, the system carried 2,222,614 riders, among the highest totals recorded this year. That’s more people than the combined populations of San Francisco, Boston, and Miami. But that number is still 60% below the pre-pandemic total on an equivalent day.
Bringing riders back to the system will be among the highest priorities, and most difficult challenges, on the city’s road to recovery. Below, fifteen New Yorkers describe what they missed — or didn’t miss — about the subway, how it’s changed since last year, and why they still ride.
Oniesha Kaye, Jewelry store worker, Bushwick, Brooklyn
The trains run a little bit smoother than they did at the start of the pandemic. It’s just more people now. It’s still the same New York subway crap. I hate the subway, but it’s convenient as hell. It’s quicker than a cab. And I don’t really have a choice. It takes me straight to work. I guess I’d miss it I couldn’t take it. It’s just so convenient. Even if I hate it.
Clementina Ruggieri, Architect, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Me and husband work together in the city. We have three children, and sometimes they come to the city when they have remote days. We wash our hands, keep our distance, wear our masks. We didn’t want this to take over our lives.
The trains are getting much busier now. We were taking them when they were empty, and now you don’t necessarily find a seat. At least we can actually get on the first L train. I have a feeling it’s not going to stay like that for very long.
I think this is going to be the best summer that New York has ever had. The city is coming back. The people are coming back. That doesn’t mean I’m happy the subway is going to get crowded again.
April Prieto, Caregiver, Woodside, Queens
For probably seven to eight months, I took Uber or Lyft. I’m taking care of old people so I just want to be careful, you know. After they released the vaccine, I felt safer. And it’s cheaper. I’m paying $50 for one ride through Uber. This is $2.75, so why not?
Elijah “Lantern” Neal, Showtime Dancer, Bushwick, Brooklyn
I was out here last winter in a T-shirt in the snow. Nobody was out here. People thought I was insane. They were like here’s five bucks, go home. I could tell people were afraid. People are being a bit nicer on the train. The money is looking a lot nicer now. It’s almost like people missed Showtime a little bit.
Angel “Duck Sauce” Ortiz, Showtime Dancer, Soundview, The Bronx
Shout out to transit cleaning. Y’all are doing your job very fucking good. I’m noticing the sparkle.
Missy Neill, Mom, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
I didn’t ride the subway at all during the pandemic because I was pregnant. I started riding it after I got vaccinated, about once a week. I’m just starting to get more comfortable. We’re going to Coney Island this weekend and I’m thinking of just doing it on the subway.
Miry Luzardo, Food Photographer, Upper East Side, Manhattan
I do the double trip on the subway in the morning and afternoon now that my son is back in school. I took the Q train this morning. I don’t know what the deal is but it took longer than usual. It’s a short ride, it should be faster.
There’s definitely more homeless people in the subway. We’ve been exposed to some things I don’t like. Some drug use. Naked people riding the subway or using it as a bathroom. At some point it was so much that I started thinking about taking cabs to drop off my son. We didn’t need to do that so far. I’m hoping it gets better when more people are using the subway. Now that more people are using the subway it makes me a little more confident.
Tunde Adegoke, Product Manager, Astoria, Queens
I’m new to New York. I got here last month. The first time riding the subway was great. I think the second time I rode the subway I got lost, but I was able to find myself back on track. For me, I love the fact that I can be in a place that I don’t have to have a car and I can move myself around the city. It’s good thing for me.
Dwight “King” Davis, Financial Services, Soundview, The Bronx
I work for a financial services company. I’m here trying to recruit people. I get brushed off more than I hear yes, but that’s part of the job. It’s a high frequency of people at Union Square, a good amount of trains. There are pretty wild things that happen right here. There was some lady twerking right at this spot. I’m focused on myself. So far I’ve gotten about five people to join my business. I need one more recruit.
Devon Premsook, Accountant, South Ozone Park, Queens
I stopped riding it when I didn’t work in the city anymore because my job closed down. They reopened so I’m back at work. I’ve been riding the train again for two weeks now. It’s the same old, same old, you just gotta wear your mask. I hate the subway. I don’t miss it at all. I’d rather drive.
Martin Torres, Social Work Graduate Student, Woodside, Queens
After the first time I took the train during the pandemic, I didn’t really feel safe, so I either biked or Ubered really. Then I got an internship in Jamaica and I didn’t have a car so I had to take the train.
There is more caution without a lot of people. People didn’t really care where they sat before, but now they always leave a gap. I still get freaked out when I see people without their mask on. I used to double mask but now that I’m vaccinated I kind of feel okay.
Himesh Maharjan, Recent College Graduate, Jackson Heights, Queens
It was really hard getting anywhere without riding the subway. I went back last summer because that’s when I started to play beach volleyball. I had to commute and there was no other way to get around because I didn’t have a bike yet.
People are just more aware of their surroundings in terms of personal space and aside from that, the subway cleaning and the fact that it closed overnight is a good thing because it used to be a lot dirtier than it is. I’m not saying it’s super clean, but it’s better.
Abigail Santana, Administrative Assistant, Astoria, Queens
Now that the companies are opening up, people are coming back. But here at Queensboro Plaza we could use more police. It does make a difference. You feel safer, you have someone to go to, now that the token booths are empty, at least when you see a police office you know you can run to them and they’ll help you. The problem is we need the police to separate more. Like if there are four at Queensboro Plaza, maybe the other four can go to the other stations, just spread them out more.
And we need more mental health services. We can complain all we want, but if we don’t have the mental health people that we need to take care of the problem or the services that these people need, they’re going to remain homeless and remain on the street.
John Espinoza, College Student, Corona, Queens
I was an essential worker at the start of the pandemic so I had to commute from Corona to Sunnyside to work at McDonalds. It was pretty good because not a lot of people were in the trains. The people who were stay on the trains were essential workers like me. I felt safer then than now because it’s more people now and people are disregarding social distancing. They are just getting closer and closer than ever.
Talia Kedem, Freshman at Sarah Lawrence College, Crown Heights, Brooklyn
I’ve been riding the subway for like two months. I’m still lost a lot of the time. I get on the wrong subway and I don’t realize and then it’s like, “Wait shit, I’m on the other side of the city.” So I need to be more attentive.
Once we come back to full capacity it’s going to be scary. But I can’t wait to experience the real New York subway thing. It’ll be exciting for me to stand next to a really, really sweaty man on the subway. That seems exciting to me.