The sun rises on a weekday in New York City, and at a Queens subway station the daily grind resembles its old self: Thousands of people pile onto an open-air platform above a bustling neighborhood, waiting in the cold to crowd onto rush-hour trains toward work, school and other essential appointments.
Hours later, as darkness falls, another rush hour begins. But this one, at a formerly hectic subway station in Lower Manhattan, feels jarringly different. In a neighborhood lined with office buildings, a once-reliable stream of white-collar commuters has thinned to a trickle. As trains arrive, finding a seat is not hard.
Nearly two years after the coronavirus engulfed New York, causing a virtual abandonment of the country’s largest transportation network, riders have slowly returned to the subway in an uneven pattern that underscores the economic divide at the heart of the city’s fitful recovery.
Stations in lower-income areas in Brooklyn, Queens and Upper Manhattan, where residents are less likely to be able to work from home and typically depend more on public transit, have rebounded far faster than stations in office-heavy sections of Manhattan, including some that were once the busiest in the system, where many workers are still able to work remotely.
The problems hobbling the subway have gotten worse since the arrival of the fast-spreading Omicron variant, which has reversed a recovery that had been progressing for months. The system is also contending with fears about crime and public safety that were amplified after a woman was shoved to her death in front of a train on Saturday by a 61-year-old man at the Times Square station.
After cratering by 90 percent in the spring of 2020, weekday subway ridership in November had reached about 56 percent of prepandemic levels, with 3.1 million riders on an average day, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the system.
But with the Omicron variant sickening so many workers, transit officials suspended service on some lines and reduced it on others. As virus cases surged, passengers who could avoid public transit did so, and ridership levels fell at the start of this year to about 40 percent.
The dip in ridership reflects a central challenge facing the subway, a vital lifeline linked to New York’s economy. Without the wholesale return of daily commuters — whose money is the lifeblood of public transit and of a vast network of businesses inside and outside stations — the city’s subway system finds itself suspended in an unsettling limbo.
In a financial plan released last month, the authority projected that even by 2025, the subway would have 223 million fewer riders than it did in 2019, a drop of about 13 percent, as many workers shift to hybrid work schedules. A significant drop in ridership will reduce fares the system is dependent on and could lead to fare hikes and service cuts.
The agency’s acting chair and chief executive, Janno Lieber, said he remained hopeful that the subway’s recovery would resume after concern around the Omicron variant subsided, though how quickly is unclear.
“The trajectory of that return has been impacted, and we don’t know exactly where it’s headed,” he said. “But for us, the key is that when people have somewhere to go, they take transit.”
At the same time, Mr. Lieber acknowledged that most riders who had not yet returned were unlikely to do so until they had a compelling need — which for many, he said, would require “work in an office.”
Still, despite the steep decline in ridership, millions of people have gone back to the subway, in most cases out of necessity. But how the subway feels and functions can vary wildly from station to station, and the experiences of those currently riding hint at the barriers to drawing back those who are not.
Through the pandemic’s throes, work never stopped
Junction Boulevard Station, Queens
The daily commute never stopped for many blue-collar workers who rely on the No. 7 train in central Queens — an epicenter of the coronavirus where in the spring of 2020 thousands fell ill and hundreds died.
Luis Rocano, a construction worker from the Corona neighborhood, waited at the Junction Boulevard station just before dawn to head to a job in Manhattan.
The State of New York City’s Subway
As Corona, a predominantly Latino neighborhood served by the station, filled with the wail of ambulances, Mr. Rocano’s fears grew. Yet even as the number of people he knew killed by Covid-19 ticked up, Mr. Rocano, 33, had to work.
“It was total chaos,” he said in Spanish. “We saw so much death in such a short amount of time.”
At its lowest point, in April 2020, ridership at the Junction Boulevard station fell to about 10 percent of prepandemic levels. But eventually people in this nexus of working-class immigrant neighborhoods piled back on the trains. By November 2020, ridership rose to 55.3 percent of prepandemic levels; one year later, it had climbed to 74.2 percent.
On this frigid December morning, Junction Boulevard’s open-air platform was nearly shoulder to shoulder. Commuters rushed onto Manhattan-bound trains, some wearing paint-stained jeans and hoisting construction tools as the sun pierced the horizon.
Mr. Rocano tried to take precautions. Still, he ended up contracting the virus.
“After I got sick, I was less afraid that I would get it again,” Mr. Rocano said. “I just got used to wearing a mask everywhere.”
Virus-related health concerns remain top of mind. According to a customer survey the transportation authority conducted last fall, 79 percent of subway customers who had not returned to the trains said that social-distancing concerns were among the top factors keeping them off trains.
But in neighborhoods like Corona, home to a high concentration of undocumented immigrants who have largely been ineligible for federal pandemic aid, the overriding worry is the need to make ends meet. About 47 percent of Queens residents were born outside the United States — 10 percentage points higher than the city as a whole — according to Census Bureau figures.
“The street workers have to go out in the heat and the cold,’’ said Raquel Chasi, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who sells fruit juice from a stand below the elevated station. “We have to keep fighting to bring bread to our homes.”
Although foot traffic is up, Ms. Chasi, 36, said many people were spending less. Some struggle with higher costs triggered by the pandemic-rattled supply chain. She complained about having to pay twice as much for the plastic cups she serves to clients.
“It has hit us very hard,” she shouted in Spanish over the roar of trains. Before 2020, Ms. Chasi could make up to $600 on a good day at the stand she has run seven days a week for the last seven years. Now, she is lucky to reach $200.
Riders reflect on a changed system
59th Street Station, Brooklyn
Ten miles southwest and below ground, the crowds at the 59th Street station in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood had been about half that of higher-traffic hubs like Junction Blvd. But the rise in passengers here has been accelerating: On November weekdays, ridership averaged about 74 percent of prepandemic levels.
Blocks away from the heart of Brooklyn’s Chinatown on 8th Avenue, the N and R trains stop at the station to serve a multicultural population that includes one of the largest enclaves of Chinese immigrants in New York. About 40 percent of people in the surrounding area identify as Hispanic and roughly the same as Asian, according to the most recent U.S. census.
On a recent Tuesday morning, a mix of people traveled to jobs across the economic spectrum, trudging down the stairs in coveralls, scrubs, collars and hoodies, headed for auto shops, medical laboratories, patients’ homes and office cubicles.
“We have to be in the office,” said Demetri Perry, 29, a 311 phone operator returning home to Flatbush. Hired in the spring of 2020, he recalled 59th Street’s then strangely empty platforms: “It was like the zombie apocalypse.”
Cristian Cruz, a 44-year-old cancer research technician, has used this station for 25 years, including during the pandemic’s early days. While waiting for an N train to his lab on the Upper East Side, he said fears of Covid transmission and a desire for space changed what had once been among the most fraught of subway interactions: negotiating a sliver of seating between two riders.
“Before, people would fight, jump in and try to get in that space,” Mr. Cruz said. “People now, they don’t go as hard to get into every seat. They’ll stay standing.”
The loss of riders has ripple effects for the neighborhood businesses. Annie Li, the manager of the Koong Wing Chinese restaurant, can see riders entering and leaving the subway through her storefront window.
Before the pandemic, Ms. Li said in Mandarin, the rumble of the train below would signal an immediate crush of business. “All of a sudden, the subway comes and then you’re swarmed.”
“Now, I don’t see that phenomenon anymore,” she said. “Only until it gets to the point that we can be without masks, maybe, will we go back to normal.”
Money still flows but riders don’t
Wall Street Station, Manhattan
For decades, people used to pour through the marble-and-tile atrium at 60 Wall Street, which houses an entrance to the Wall Street subway station. In early 2020, four businesses greeted them: a convenience store, a cafe, a restaurant and a shoe-repair shop.
But on a recent Tuesday, the atrium was hushed, and most of the stores were shuttered.
Only the shoe-repair store, Cobbler Express, had reopened, and the owner, Eduard Shimonov, said it had passed for a busy day. Instead of the one or two shoe shines that marked business these days, the store had done three.
“You just don’t have the same foot traffic,” Mr. Shimonov, 41, said, sitting on a shoe shine booth.
The picture is much the same inside the subway station that used to provide all four businesses with a steady parade of white-collar workers.
On an average weekday before the pandemic, more than 24,000 riders passed through the turnstiles of the Wall Street station. In November, the number was down to about 9,000 riders, about 37.5 percent of its 2019 level and far below the system as a whole.
Instead of a massive nightly exodus from high-rise office buildings to a narrow underground platform, the ritual is smaller. From 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., the Wall Street station was muted.
“There’s still some movement,” said Claude LaRoche, a lawyer heading to Pennsylvania Station, where he’d take the Long Island Rail Road to his home in Lake Grove, N.Y. “But it’s eerie. And nowhere near as crowded.”
Transit officials blame much of the drop on the seismic shift to remote work, an upheaval to the rhythms of the city with no clear end.
Before the pandemic, about 80 percent of Manhattan office workers were in their offices on a given weekday, said Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, an influential business advocacy organization.
Even before the Omicron variant, the Partnership had projected that only 49 percent of workers would be in offices by the end of this month, with just 13 percent returning full time.
Ms. Wylde said the recent surge appears to have pushed that projection out of reach. Many employers again delayed when they expect workers to come back to the office, and some now acknowledge that remote work has moved from a temporary disruption to a longer-term norm.
“I don’t think most employers believe that there will be a moment where everyone goes back,” Ms. Wylde said.
Mr. LaRoche exemplifies the shift: He works from the office three times a week, choosing days when he feels trains are emptier.
Even those who have embraced returning to daily commuting said they were anxious. Risa Kantor, who never fully stopped traveling from the Upper West Side to her office, said that she would feel more at ease if other riders strictly adhered to the subway’s mask requirement.
Ms. Kantor, who works for a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities, also said that she would not ride the train alone outside commuting hours out of concern over crime and violence.
Subway crime last year was at its lowest total in decades, according to the police and the M.T.A., but though the total number of major felonies on the subway is down from 2019, so is ridership, and the rate of crimes per million weekday passengers has actually increased. Many crimes were high-profile attacks that generated significant news coverage and fed a perception that the system was perilous.
In the authority’s customer survey, fear over crime and harassment was the top factor cited by former riders who have left the subways; 90 percent of them said it was important to their decision whether to return.
The mayor and Police Department recently announced more frequent and visible patrols on platforms and trains. The transit authority has also been on a marketing blitz, promoting the benefits of the subway — ease, climate, cost — in a bid to bring riders back.
But the immediate future remains dreary, for the system and for business owners like Mr. Shimonov. Many of his former customers do not live in the city and no longer travel to their offices. The stragglers he used to get from the subway station have also disappeared.
“I just hope this gets better soon. Otherwise, I’ll have to do something serious,” Mr. Shimonov said. “If this keeps up, people are going to lose a good cobbler, and that’s a pity for the city.”
Jeffrey E. Singer contributed reporting.