As New York City prepares to reopen after enduring one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world, officials are seeking to avoid a new disaster — the gridlock that could result if many people continue to avoid public transportation and turn to cars instead.
Before the crisis, eight million people in the region each weekday — including over 50 percent of the city’s population — used a complex network of subways, buses and railways that has long been a vibrant symbol of the largest metropolis in the United States. After the outbreak hit, though, ridership plummeted as workers stayed home to slow the spread of the virus.
Now the city faces a dilemma: Encouraging people to return to mass transit could increase the risk of new infections. But the region’s roads, tunnels and bridges cannot handle a surge in car traffic, and there are few alternatives.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees most of the system, said on Friday that it would be rolling out a plan to lure riders back, including ramping up service to reduce congestion, deploying the police to enforce mask usage and stationing workers across the subway to report overcrowding.
Transit officials are also urging the city to mandate that major companies create flexible start times and extend work-from-home plans to help ease crowding as businesses reopen.
Still, New York officials’ efforts to restore confidence in public transportation were dealt a blow when the Centers for Disease Control unexpectedly released guidelines on Thursday that urged people to drive to work alone, rather than take public transportation, as states reopen.
The M.T.A. swiftly lashed out at the C.D.C.
“Encouraging people, especially those without cars and in congested areas like New York, not to take public transit is misguided,” said Patrick J. Foye, chairman of the M.T.A., which is controlled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. “Transit is, and has long been, the safest way to move around any city. Our transit and bus system is cleaner and safer than it has been in history, as we clean and disinfect around the clock.”
The public transportation challenges underscore how the outbreak has left many of New York City’s longstanding rhythms and routines in disarray, suggesting that the path to a full recovery will be long and difficult. Since the outbreak hit, subway ridership alone has dropped around 90 percent.
In May, nearly half of New Yorkers said they would avoid public transportation when the city comes back to life, according to a survey conducted by Elucd, a data research company, and Industrious, a workplace operator.
Even Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged that public transportation may not be the preferred first option once the city starts potentially reopening on June 8. “Some people are going to be comfortable on mass transit, some are not,” Mr. de Blasio told reporters. “You may see people use their cars more in the short term.”
The mayor has so far resisted taking any sweeping measures to prevent a surge in traffic or encourage commuters wary of the subway to use other modes of transit, like bicycles.
“There’s not always a chance to help people all the time in terms of their transportation needs,” Mr. de Blasio said. “People are going to have to improvise and I believe they will.”
Cities around the world face similar challenges. Social distancing is difficult on public transport systems designed to move large numbers of people efficiently, but they are seen as critical to reopening businesses and kick-starting stalled economies.
In the United States, the No. 1 predictor of whether people are comfortable going back to work is whether they would take public transportation, according to Elucd.
“The top concern people have about trying to work is not about policies or procedures, it’s about the behavior of others that will put them at risk,” particularly strangers on crowded trains and buses, said Michael Simon, Elucd’s chief executive.
The problem is especially acute in New York City, which suffers some of the worst traffic in the country.
Already, there are worrying signs that more New Yorkers are climbing back into cars: In recent days, traffic across the city’s bridges and tunnels has risen to within 60 to 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to city officials — a turnabout from earlier this month, when city streets were all but empty.
Between April 20 and May 17, search demand for monthly parking from new users nearly doubled on SpotHero, a popular parking app, compared with before the pandemic.
To ward off potential gridlock, some transportation experts have urged the city to adopt a temporary ban on cars with only one person from entering parts of Manhattan and to roll out new bicycle lanes along commuter-heavy thoroughfares.
New York is already the first major American city planning to impose a fee on drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan as a way to raise money for public transit and coax people out of their cars. The program was supposed to start early next year, but officials have said it will likely be pushed back.
For now, the city’s limited bike-lane network does not have the capacity to absorb a flood of people cycling to work, and that could push them onto more dangerous streets.
In April, Mr. de Blasio proposed cuts to the city’s bike-lane-expansion program as part of his initial budget and abandoned a pilot project to close streets to cars, citing a strain on police resources.
He later abruptly changed course and announced that the city would temporarily close 100 miles of streets to cars — or about one percent of the city’s 8,000 miles of roadway — during the pandemic. Some of those street closings may become permanent.
“In New York we are hesitating, we are making false starts and not being strategic,” said Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group.
Some cities that emerged from lockdowns before New York have already seen a spike in car traffic: In early April, as Chinese officials lifted stay-at-home orders, several major cities, like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, experienced higher levels of rush-hour congestion compared with the previous year.
In Europe, cities have taken aggressive steps to avoid car congestion by offering alternatives to returning commuters.
Brussels, London, Milan and Paris have announced plans to add miles of new bicycle lanes, while London has also hiked congestion-pricing fares for drivers entering the city center.
“Usually people are so used to the way streets have been they can’t imagine them any other way, but right now people’s minds are open,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, a former New York City transportation commissioner who has worked with cities like Milan on their post-pandemic transportation programs. “You’ve got this moment to re-engineer our streets and bring the kinds of changes we’ve wanted to see in the future become a reality now.”
That opportunity is underscored by developments in New York, where people have flocked to other modes of transit.
In May, the number of trips taken on Revel, an electric moped ride-sharing service in Brooklyn, Queens and parts of Manhattan, jumped by over 200 percent compared with before the pandemic. Bicycle shops have experienced record sales with long lines of customers.
Active memberships on Citi Bike, the city’s bike share program, surged to over 157,000 in May — an all-time high for the system.
Kendall Miller, a 33-year-old operations executive at a real estate company, used to use her bike occasionally for exercise. But when the pandemic hit, she started biking on errands and to see friends. When she returns to her office, she plans to bike to avoid the subway.
“As of right now, the only way I would do it is bike there,” she said.
The city’s transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, said the de Blasio administration is committed to examining how the city can capitalize on the recent shift toward bikes and other forms of “micro-mobility.”
“Absolutely this is a critical juncture,” Ms. Trottenberg said. “How do we reopen our city and our economy, while keeping the positive things we have recently experienced — streets that are safer, quieter and can better serve bus riders, cyclists and pedestrians?”
The C.D.C. later amended its guidelines to encourage biking, walking and driving with household members as well as driving alone.
While car sales in New York and across the country have dropped during the pandemic, as restrictions ease and dealerships are allowed to reopen industry analysts say low interest rates and cheap gas might lure buyers.
“We are still pretty deep in a pandemic, and the question remains, is a different set of buyers emerging to buy cars?” said David Steinberg, the founder of Foureyes, a company that works with car dealerships. “The reality is, we probably don’t know just yet.”
On social media there is already plenty of discussion among New Yorkers considering purchasing cars.
In Astoria, Queens, Nina Fiore said she and her husband were considering buying a car to use on weekends trips after talking to friends who drive to parks “where they can better distance and have the kids play and run around.”
And if her husband has to return to work in Manhattan before there is a coronavirus vaccine, they would prefer he drive rather than take the subway.
Even Doug Gordon, a Brooklyn-based cycling advocate and host of the podcast “The War on Cars,” says he and his wife may buy a car to ride out the summer with their two children and give the family travel flexibility.
“It’s surprising even to me,” he said. “The me of three months ago versus the me of right now — it’s a very different conversation.”
If the city does not take ambitious steps soon to revamp its streets, it will lose a unique opportunity to diversify the way New Yorkers get around, experts say. After nearly every catastrophe that drew riders off the subway — the Sept. 11 attack, hurricanes and train derailments — the New York commute eventually returned to pre-crisis normal.
“In my 50-year career in New York City, there have been several moments” like this, said Samuel I. Schwartz, a consultant and former city traffic commissioner. “We should seize this moment. The question will be whether there is the political will to do so.”