How remote work is devastating New York’s commuter trains
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Before the coronavirus pandemic, more than a million workers commuted to New York every weekday.
Now, as the health crisis enters its third year and another twist upends the rhythms of the city, employers are increasingly viewing the five-day workweek in the office as a relic of the past, embracing more flexibility because their employees want it.
The absence of office workers has dealt a severe blow to the restaurants, shops and other businesses that depend on them. But it’s been particularly devastating for the region’s public transit systems, where before the pandemic more people used subways, commuter trains and buses than in any other part of the country.
In 2019, regional transit agencies collectively transported more than 500 million passengers in the New York City area, but ridership in 2021 is down more than half of that pre-pandemic level.
In wave after wave of coronavirus infections, transit officials remained confident that commuters would soon return to taking regular trains and buses.
But each new variant has caused a disappointing setback, with employers repeatedly postponing plans to return to offices. Uncertainty about how the pandemic will play out has left transit officials wondering when and to what extent commuters will return to their previous routines — if they ever do.
Commuter rail, even more than the subway, is particularly dependent on office workers traveling to New York from Long Island, New Jersey, and suburbs north of the city.
The Omicron variant, which swept through the region late last year, reversed what had been a slow but steady increase in travel. Before the December holidays, weekday ridership had exceeded half of pre-pandemic levels on the region’s suburban networks and had even exceeded some forecasts for the year.
But since then, trains and buses have started to empty again. Subway ridership, which was approaching 60% of pre-pandemic levels, has fallen to less than 50%. Commuter railroads have dropped to less than 40% of their pre-pandemic loads.
Despite the decline, transit agencies are still clinging to ridership projections that are generally high: Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road expect their ridership to reach at least 74% of pre-pandemic levels in 2022. Operators of the PATH train that connects northern New Jersey to Manhattan forecast 80 percent. And New Jersey Transit forecasts 76% by mid-2023.
But those projections are based more on hope than certainty, said Christopher Jones, senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association, an influential research and advocacy group.
“You know people aren’t going to come to the office as much as they used to,” Mr Jones said. “But you don’t know yet what those models are going to be.”
To assess how ridership might recover, transit agencies hired consultants and surveyed riders. But these methods are sensitive to the vagaries of the virus. In June, more than 90% of New Jersey Transit commuters to the city who were surveyed said their employers expected to return to the office by September.
Then the Delta variant arrived and disrupted most back-to-office plans. New Jersey Transit surveyed its customers again in November, but has not yet shared the results. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is polling users of its PATH train system to test its theory that they will be returning in droves this year.
Office workers are an especially vital financial lifeline because many of them have purchased monthly passes, which cost $500 or more each month, and have provided agencies with stable and substantial income.
But now many commuters have given up on their passes, and with companies moving to more flexible or hybrid schedules, it’s unclear when or if demand will return to pre-pandemic levels.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s two commuter railroads, Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road, sold nearly 200,000 monthly passes before the pandemic. In November, those sales fell more than 75%, to around 45,000 passes. The authority recently said it would only collect $49 million from commuters in 2021, a sharp drop from $346 million in 2019.
Sales of monthly passes accounted for nearly 40% of New Jersey Transit’s ticket revenue in 2019. As of mid-2021, sales of these passes were still down about 70%.
Transportation agencies have largely avoided drastic cuts thanks to billions of dollars in federal aid during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, Tero Jänne spent two hours a business day traveling on Metro-North between his home in Darien, Connecticut, and his office at Solomon Partners, a financial firm in Midtown Manhattan. He waived his monthly pass, which cost $335, and before Omicron arrived, he would commute to work about three days a week.
“I don’t see this as a reduced working week – it’s a reduced commuting period,” said Mr. Jänne, the company’s managing director.
Almost everyone at Solomon Partners, including its executives, has reduced the number of office visit days as part of a permanent shift to hybrid working. Senior bankers have lost their offices, transformed into shared meeting spaces.
“The idea that people are pounding the table for us to go back to the way we work is flat out wrong,” said Marc Cooper, the company’s chief executive, who is now in the office two to three times a week. “I certainly don’t need my partner and senior bankers who are outward looking to come into the office and make phone calls.”
A recent survey by the Partnership for New York City, which represents large employers, found that nearly half of companies expect some of their employees to be in the office only two days a week, even after the end of the pandemic.
The largest employers, which employ more than 500 people, expected less than half of their workers to return to the office by the end of January. But that was before the arrival of the Omicron variant.
“We’re about to find out what the new year is going to bring,” said Janno Lieber, interim chairman and chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “We’re a $16 billion company that’s lost half of its customers and we’re going to go out there and get them back.”
Even as transit officials insist that commuter railroads will begin to rebound in noticeable numbers this year, the agency also recognizes that the pandemic is increasingly likely to cause permanent changes in railroads. travel habits of the region.
The MTA Board of Directors has approved the sale of tickets valid for 20 rides over 60 days, at a 20% discount from the highest one-way fares. They would cover five round trips per month. The council also approved a temporary 10% discount on monthly passes.
Metro-North was selling about 95,000 monthly passes before the pandemic, Lieber said. That number dipped to around 10,000 in early 2021 and gradually rose to around 20,000 by November, he said.
“Obviously we’re trying to get the hybrid worker to come back to public transit,” Lieber said.
Before the pandemic, Phil Pescatore, the chief ethics officer for Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, traveled almost daily from his home in New Jersey to the company’s office at Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s Far West Side – doing the shuttle a total of three hours round trip trip.
When the pandemic began, Guardian already had a hybrid work model, adopting flextime for some employees after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 damaged its former office in Lower Manhattan. But as the pandemic persisted, the company decided to give employees even more flexibility, including the ability for some new hires to skip the office at all.
Mr. Pescatore has given up his monthly pass on New Jersey Transit and is now buying individual tickets.
“Time was found, and I reused that time,” Mr. Pescatore said. “I’m doing things that I haven’t had the opportunity to do: a little more exercise in the morning and the ability to think and plan a little more.”
Not only does David Kass, a book publisher, have no plans to return to commuting regularly to an office in Manhattan, but there is no longer an office.
Mr. Kass, who lives with his wife and two children in Verona, NJ, has been working from home since the pandemic began. About a year ago, his small business decided to abandon its offices in the Flatiron district and go “completely virtual”, he said.
After years of commuting daily on New Jersey Transit trains to Pennsylvania Station, Mr. Kass, 45, rarely boards a train and does not fail to depend on a path iron became extremely unreliable.
“That’s the ride I’m dreading,” Mr. Kass said. “It was the journey that was eating me alive.”
Now that he’s saving over $300 a month on a monthly subscription and at least two hours a day skipping the commute, he’s converted to working from home.
“You can’t tell me I have to go to an office,” he said, “if I’ve demonstrated 100 percent that it works.”
How remote work is devastating New York’s commuter trains
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