Last year, my morning commute would take me on the J for a short intra-Brooklyn ride from either Gates Avenue or Halsey Street (equidistant walks from my apartment) to Marcy Avenue. After tiptoeing down the narrow platform to get to an empty portion large enough to stand in, I would occasionally glance at the other commuters tapping their feet impatiently. Many — if not most — of them were young and white, including myself.
Sometimes, the train would be completely packed by the next stop along Broadway, on the Bushwick–Bed-Stuy border. We would crawl past new apartment buildings, hotels, and “modern living” developments. My disembarkation at Marcy Avenue — a single-line station in the heart of Williamsburg — more closely resembled a scene New Yorkers might expect to find at Union Square than at a minor Brooklyn outpost. The station’s eastern exit features two turnstiles. Typically, there would be about a dozen weary souls — now an even higher proportion of them young and white — waiting to enter.
It’s hardly news that subway ridership is the highest it’s been since the 1940s, and that the MTA is having difficulty meeting that demand. But less discussed is where that increased ridership is coming from. Some of the system’s smallest stations, it turns out, account for the lion’s share of increased trips. Eleven stations experienced an increase in ridership of more than 40 percent during the five-year period from 2011 to 2016: two in downtown Manhattan, where more companies have been shifting their headquarters; two in Long Island City; and the rest in Brooklyn. It’s a pattern that looks awfully familiar to anyone who’s charted the path of the city’s ongoing gentrification.
As soaring rents have pushed many workers farther from Manhattan, more people than ever are taking the subway each weekday and riding for longer distances. This has a cascade effect across the system. Trains get filled earlier in their journeys and platforms become more packed with commuters, heightening the “overcrowding” that the MTA blames for most of the subway’s delays. Not only are trains more crowded than they’ve been in decades, but they’re crowded for longer segments of their lines, leading to more stations being overcrowded, causing more delays.
Take the commute down the J in Brooklyn, for example. The MTA doesn’t release data on overcrowding delays by station, but its numbers do reveal that the average weekday ridership at the Halsey Street stop — that is to say, the number of people who swiped in at that station — was 5,608 people in 2011. Five years later, that number jumped to 6,490, an increase of 15.7 percent. The next stop down the line, Gates Avenue, rose to an average of 6,602 riders per day, an increase of 14 percent. If we follow along the J toward Manhattan — Kosciuszko Street, up 22 percent; Myrtle-Broadway, up 19 percent; Marcy Ave, up 22 percent—a pattern emerges. In total, 6,914 more people entered those five stations on an average weekday, a 19 percent increase. And that’s before the line even crosses the East River.
To be sure, most subway stations saw an increase in ridership during this period. However, of the 46 stations that experienced an increase of 20 percent or more, 31 were in Brooklyn, 8 were in Manhattan, 6 in Queens, and only 1 in the Bronx. And most of these are clustered in north Brooklyn, the city’s most quickly gentrifying district.
Yonah Freemark, a researcher in urban planning who has written extensively on mass transit, says there are a few key differences between the peak ridership period of the 1940s and today that may also be affecting commuting patterns. First, a higher percentage of the population lives outside of Manhattan: In the 1940s Manhattan had about a quarter of the city’s residents; today it has about a fifth. New York’s subway also ran slightly longer distances back then, with elevated lines on 2nd, 3rd, and 6th Avenues.
Perhaps most importantly, New York’s employment tends to be more “peaky” today, with a larger share of the population working nine-to-five jobs. In the 1940s, more people worked in manufacturing shifts, which staggered transit usage throughout the day. This means the current peak in subway usage may be even more stressful on the system than the one in 1940s, despite slightly lower total ridership.
That being said, it’s hardly surprising that Long Island City and north Brooklyn have seen a huge increase. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stated goal was for “transit-oriented development,” or upzoning neighborhoods for massive redevelopment around transportation hubs. The neighborhoods targeted? Long Island City, Greenpoint/Williamsburg, and Downtown Brooklyn, among others — all of which show up on that list of most-increased subway ridership.
While some of the new transit burden did materialize in conjunction with the upzoning — the Hudson Yards 7 extension, built at a cost of $2 billion to city taxpayers, in particular— in many places new commuters were merely dumped into the existing transit infrastructure. The Bedford Avenue L station is still the Bedford Avenue L station, a daily crush of commuters that spills into the street at Bedford and North 7th. Indeed, vanishingly few of the subway stations in rezoned neighborhoods received any renovation whatsoever.
“I believe that the growth our Department of City Planning has pursued in Brooklyn, particularly over the past twenty years, has put an inordinate strain on our subway system,” says Samuel Stein, an urban studies instructor at Hunter College. “This construction was part of an overall rezoning strategy, common to both Bloomberg and de Blasio, of intensifying development in working-class neighborhoods of color while protecting wealthier white neighborhoods. The result of all of this is serious strain on our subway system, whose maintenance has been neglected as its use has been intensified.”
Looking at subway ridership data exemplifies just how complex the city’s growth patterns have been this decade. Bensonhurst, one of the neighborhoods with some of the largest subway ridership increases, doesn’t exactly fit the profile of an archetypical gentrifying area. Quite the opposite: A 2016 NYU Furman Center study listed the neighborhood as one of just seven “non-gentrifying” neighborhoods in New York City. But what Bensonhurst has experienced is one of the largest population shifts in the city, as it’s become home to one of the city’s fastest-growing populations of Chinese immigrants. Not that long ago an Italian-American stronghold, Bensonhurst now has the largest number of Chinese-born residents of any neighborhood in New York.
As a result, there are more people — and more commuters — in Bensonhurst than ever before. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the neighborhoods surrounding the highest-growth subway stations in southeast Brooklyn have roughly 14,000 more daily commuters than in 2011, and the vast majority of them — approximately 12,000 — take the subway. Car ownership has rapidly declined in tandem.
In the New York Times’ coverage of Bensonhurst’s changing demographics, professor Peter Kwong, who teaches immigration and Asian-American studies at Hunter College, noted that the recent Chinese influx in southeast Brooklyn tends to be from more affluent areas of China, such as Guangdong province and Hong Kong. Southeast Brooklyn is one of the few parts of the city left with relatively affordable housing and good schools. Bensonhurst, of course, is one of the first neighborhoods on the D, N, and Q journeys into Manhattan. Now, those trains are more crowded than ever before. Like most every other line, their on-time performance has plummeted since 2007.
None of this is to say that gentrification is the primary cause of the subway’s troubles — which are largely the result of decades of maintenance backlogs and an antiquated signal system. And trying to encourage development where more people can use mass transit instead of choking the city’s roads with cars is an admirable goal. But the way Bloomberg and other city leaders have pursued it — upzoning neighborhoods without fully analyzing the likely effect on the city’s transit infrastructure — is indicative of the piecemeal urban planning city hall is often guilty of.
“Good urban planning is comprehensive,” says Moses Gates, director of community planning and design at the Regional Plan Association. “[It] looks at development and how to support that development,” which includes schools, open space, sewers, and yes, public transportation. The equation at play is fairly simple in the end, he says: More development equals more people equals more mass-transit usage. It’s something the city and MTA could easily have predicted; no one should act surprised now that the subways are breaking under the strain.