A New York City subway car during the coronavirus pandemic, early April 2020
Last Thursday, Governor Cuomo made the decision to shut down New York’s subways from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. to allow for train cars and stations to be disinfected every 24 hours. This ambitious move comes as a result of the still-rising coronavirus case numbers in the city, the decrease in subway ridership by about 90 percent, and the increase in homeless people on trains. The closure will begin Wednesday, May 6.
“This is going to be one of the most aggressive, creative, challenging undertakings that the MTA has done,” Governor Cuomo said on Thursday. This was the first time that the Metropolitan Transit Authority stopped regularly scheduled overnight service. MTA officials noted that the subway’s closure during these four hours would affect about 11,000 riders, but buses and other means of transportation will still be running. To accommodate essential workers, the MTA will begin rolling out a program that offers workers two free trips on for-hire alternative vehicles each night, and additional buses will also be added in areas with large numbers of riders.
The plan to end overnight service was actually brought up in 2017, as the Regional Plan Association suggested an end to overnight weekday service since only 1.5 percent of weekday riders use the subway from 12:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. The RPA believed that shutting down the subway during these hours could allow for increased repairs of subway trains and stations built over a century ago. Yet many critics of the proposal felt that it would undermine the health, restaurant, and office maintenance industries and cited that overnight ridership has increased over the last decade by 11 percent.
Yet, there are a number of concerns about this four-hour closure, ranging from economic distress to more difficult commutes for essential workers. New York is one of the only cities in the world and the only city in the country to operate trains on all of its lines 24 hours a day. Losing this 24/7 access to the subway would impact many essential workers, specifically those working in medical professions, feel as though these alternative methods of transportation will be less reliable and dependable. Additionally, an overnight closure would affect affect the city’s atmosphere and character— no longer the city that never sleeps.
The New York Times in 2015 conducted an economic analysis of New York’s subways and determined that shutting down the subway even for just a day is very costly. According to the article, there are about 3.9 million people working in New York City with an average daily wage of $409, which amounts to just under $1.6 billion in total earnings. Yet, “If the subway closing led just 10 percent of people who work in New York City to take the day off today, the cost in lost labor was around $160 million — lost wages for those who are not fortunate enough to get a paid snow day, and lost productivity to the employers of those who did get paid without working.”
New York’s subways have closed down a number of times in the past, due to strikes, blackouts, and natural disasters. Here is our list of times that the New York subway shut down.
Hurricane Irene (2011)
The New York subway has shut down only twice in the past decade, in 2011 for Hurricane Irene and in 2012 for Hurricane Sandy. At noon on August 27, 2011, New York’s subways halted, as Mayor Bloomberg ordered 370,000 people to evacuate their homes.
Yet just two days later on August 29, New York began opening many of its subway lines, despite massive property damage and flooding. Surprisingly, there were about seven times less arrests in the city on August 27 than a normal Saturday. This was the first time in the MTA’s history that the subways shut down due to the weather.
Hurricane Sandy (2012)
Seawater fills the South Ferry subway station at the tip of Manhattan . Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin, 2012.
The MTA faced losses of over $5 billion during Hurricane Sandy, which shut down on October 27, 2012. The subway remained shut for a number of days due to the flooding of tunnels, including seven critical subway tunnels beneath the East River, and damage to switches and signals. It took up to four days to pump water out of some flooded subway tunnels.
The nearby Long Island Railroad and the Metro-North Railroad also suffered devastating losses, as lengthy power outages and debris — including a 40-foot boat tossed onto the tracks in Ossining — resulted in weeks-long shutdowns. “Last year, riders could take comfort in knowing that the shutdown was voluntary. This storm prompted a willful suspension of service, but then ensured that the system would remain down well after it passed,” the New York Times wrote in 2012.
2015 Snowstorm, 2016 Blizzard, and 2017 Nor’easter
Shoveling on the Q train tracks in Brooklyn. Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin
In January of 2015, the subway was shut down due to a snowstorm — the first time in 110 years — yet although passenger services was halted, equipment trains still ran. Governor Cuomo made the decision to close passenger service “to err on the side of caution,” noting that it is easier to return a fully closed subway to its full capacity than to operate a subway with modified service. This shutdown resulted in a loss of millions of dollars for the day, yet it potentially saved a number of lives.
There were also a number of partial subway closures in the 2010s due to the January 2016 blizzard and the March 2017 nor’easter, in which all above-ground stations were closed.
The Northeast Blackout of 1965 left 30 million people without electricity for up to 13 hours on November 9, effectively shutting down New York subways and trapping approximately 800,000 riders. Starting at around 5 p.m., the Northeast faced a colossal power outage, but by the next day many subway lines were running again. Many subway riders were forced to walk along dark tracks to the next station, and by 3 a.m., power was restored to midtown Manhattan. Following the blackout, posters were placed throughout New York’s subway stations thanking New Yorkers for their cooperation, as more than 600 trains were stalled throughout 237 miles of the transit system. “When the lights went out you were at your brightest,” the poster read.
The New York City blackout of 1977, unlike the 1965 blackout, affected only New York City and surrounding areas, beginning on July 13 at 8:37 p.m. and ending the next day. After a series of lightning strikes, Con Ed could not generate enough power within the city, and the biggest generator in the city shut down an hour after the initial lightning strike. Subways were shut down that night and for much of the next day, and about 4,000 people had to be evacuated from the subway system. Yet unlike the 1965 blackout, there was a drastic increase in crime, as 3,776 people were arrested in New York’s largest mass arrest in city history. 1,616 stores were looted, and 1,037 fires were responded to, leading to around $300 million in damages.
The Northeast blackout of 2003 began at 4:10 p.m. on August 14, impacting over 45 million people in eight states. The outage was likely due to a software bug in the control room of the electric company FirstEnergy in Ohio. The 2003 blackout was not as costly as the prior two blackouts, as most places had electricity restored after just two hours. New York’s subways halted for about four hours and resumed limited service starting at 8 p.m. More than 600 subway and commuter rail cars were trapped between stations. Approximately 3,000 fire calls were reported, and New York City also experienced six blackout-related deaths.
Following the 9/11 attacks, New York’s subway shut down for the first time since the 1977 blackout. At 10:20 p.m. on September 11, 2011, subway service was suspended, and many trains in Lower Manhattan lost power and had to be evacuated through the tunnels. Newsday noted that “the subway stations under lower Manhattan were eerily quiet shortly after noon. Soot filtered down to the stations near the World Trade Center, covering the floors, the phones, the MetroCard vending machines. Token booths were empty.” Surprisingly, many subway lines were opened around two or three hours after the attacks, and three of the four damaged subways reopened within a year. There were no reported casualties on the subway on 9/11. In 2018, the Cortlandt Street subway station, which was heavily damaged during 9/11, was finally re-opened.
1966 Transit Strike
1966 marked the first strike against the New York City Transit Authority, led by the Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union. Michael “Red Mike” Quill, the founder of the TWU, led the twelve-day strike, which effectively ended all subway and bus service throughout the city, before being imprisoned. On New Year’s Day 1966, the last trains left at 8:02 a.m., and Quill arrests of the strike’s leaders were set for January 4 at 1 a.m. Despite his short imprisonment, Quill noted, “The judge can drop dead in his black robes. I don’t care if I rot in jail. I will not call off the strike.”
On January 10, over 15,000 workers picketed City Hall, and the strike ended early in the morning on January 13. Over $60 million was allotted for increased wages, an additional paid holiday, and increased pension benefits. The Taylor Law was passed following the strike, which defined the rights and limitations of public employee unions in New York. Yet after giving a speech to the strikers, Quill died at the end of January due to poor health.
1980 Transit Strike
On April 1, 1980, approximately 33,000 members of the TWU went on strike to increase wages of contracted workers, and all subways and buses were shut down for twelve days. The MTA proposed a 34-month contract with a 3% wage increase each year, but the TWU demanded a 21-month contract with a 30% wage increase, since the cost of living had increased by over 50% since the last contract was negotiated. Within just one day alone, there was an 11% reduction in commuters going to work, and the city implemented a mandatory carpool restriction that stated that cars could not enter Manhattan’s central business district without three or more passengers. LIRR workers also went on strike on April 2, the second in four months, and the City University of New York canceled classes at three campuses throughout the strike.
After the New York State Supreme Court fined the striking unions $1 million, the MTA negotiated a 9% raise in salary the first year and an 8% raise the second year with the TWU. According to the New York Times, the strike was estimated to have cost $75 to 100 million in lost income, and the city lost about $2 million a day in taxes. Mayor Ed Koch was often seen crossing the Brooklyn Bridge by foot with fellow commuters in protest of the strike, and overall the striking unions suffered a net negative impact.
2005 Transit Strike
Between 32,000 and 34,000 workers representing the TWU Local 100 went on strike from December 20 to 22, 2005, after failed negotiations for increased retirement benefits, pension benefits, and wages. All service on subways and buses were halted during these three days. The strike occurred during the busiest shopping week of the year, and the city estimated that it lost close to $1 billion for all three days of the strike. Retailers and other lost about $400 million per day. The union was subsequently fined $2.5 million, and TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint was imprisoned for 10 days. The strike was illegal under the Taylor Law.
The TWU demanded a 6% salary increase per year for each of the contract’s three years, as well as better accommodations for maternity leave and station maintenance. The MTA offered a 3% raise the first year, 4% the second year, and 3.5% the third year. While the TWU wanted to lower the eligibility age for a full pension from 55 to 50, the MTA wanted to increase it to 62. Toussaint announced following the strike that there would be no changes to pensions, and salaries would increase per the MTA’s original offer, plus receiving full pay on Martin Luther King Day.
Next, check out the first 7 miles of open, car-free streets in NYC!