The New York City subway system is one of the few in the world that operates on a 24-hour basis, making true the moniker that New York is the city that never sleeps. Yesterday, November 30, in the release of The Fourth Regional Plan, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) has proposed ending late-night service in lieu of the ever-increasing and continually worsening condition of the deteriorating underground system. 

Every 20 years since 1929, the Regional Plan Association releases a full report detailing a blueprint to help reshape the New York metropolitan area. The efforts detail where the city is failing such as in transportation and affordable housing, and shows over time how the city has reacted to economic trends. But the solutions the RPA outlines are not official policy nor are they meant to be the absolute terms in which the city has to abide by. They are ideas meant to spark meaningful conversation and debates about the problems severely affecting people.

What was released in the fourth plan details across the board how the city government needs to be more reactive to issues including sharply rising housing costs, plateauing incomes, and a worsening transportation system- problems among many others that are becoming too big to solve. Out of the 61 specific recommendations “to achieve greater equity, shared prosperity, better health, and sustainability,” more of which we hope to address in future articles, one stuck out to us almost immediately: shutting down the subways from 12:30 am to 5:00 am on weeknights.

While 24-hour is a helpful amenity for the late night worker and partier, the RPA suggests this change in operation to create more workable time for the MTA to address its failing system.

Since the suggestion was uncovered from deep within the report, most every major news outlet in New York and the surrounding area have had their say in the proposal, as have MTA and city officials. According to 2016 data reported by the New York Times, 1.5 percent of people ride the subway during those night hours (about 85,000 people). So the number of people impacted by a shutdown like this is significant.

Comments from former MTA chairman Thomas F. Prendergast and many others have remarked that having a 24-hour subway system is a defining feature of New York City, embedded in our culture to move around easily all through the day and night. In the Wall Street Journal, current MTA Chairman Joseph Lota remarked “a permanent closure of the entire subway system every night is a bit draconian.”

While New Yorkers have the right to freak out about losing an amenity its had since the system opened in 1904, we cannot ignore the fact that the subway is no longer the efficient and reliable system it used to be. Perhaps a radical change is necessary to jump start the much needed upgrades. Already the MTA is trying to improve its technology with new open gangway cars, the possible implementation of screen doors, and the phasing out of the MetroCard, but what really needs to be done are track repairs.

What’s important to note in this RPA report is that this is just that: a proposal. The Association’s plans have been important in shaping the development of this city and their suggestions shouldn’t be ignored because there is years of research that goes into uncovering solutions to help the city desperately needs it.

Maybe a complete and permanent shutdown is not necessary. Increased bus service late at night could be of great help to those who depend on late-night service to make a living (though an overhaul of the bus system would need to be addressed as well). Maybe the system needs to be shut down at night once a month or every few months during to give the MTA more time to fix its mechanical and track problems.

The subway cannot stay open for 24-hours simply because people want to be able call New York the “city that never sleeps.” That’s absurd. Yes, its been running like this since 1904, but look at what cost. London and Paris, both cities that equal New York in late night activity have underground systems that don’t run 24/7. London recently adopted weekend 24-hour runs, but the weekday times remain firmly restricted to opening at 5:00 am.

It’s true that much of the change that needs to happen is not just repairs on the physical system, but with the MTA itself and the politics surrounding its operation, but meaningful and difficult decisions may need to be made to get there.

If you’re curious to know more about what the RPA has concluded about the New York City subway system, be sure to check out their comprehensive website.

Interested in learning more about the city’s subway? Join us on our Underground Tour of the NYC Subway!

Underground Tour of the NYC Subway