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Meet the New Yorkers Who Say They’ve Given Up on the Subways

Edgardo Rivera bikes down a street in Bushwick. Feb. 26, 2021.
Edgardo Rivera bikes down a street in Bushwick. Feb. 26, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Florin Petrisor swapped the No. 7 train for an electric scooter and never looked back.

Claire McLeveighn started walking to work and hasn’t been on the subway since last March.

Isaac Himmelman began the pandemic without a bike or a car but now he’s “the proud owner of both.”

They are among the millions of New Yorkers who once rode the subway daily, but who, one year into the pandemic, have found other ways to get around — while largely staying away from the transit system.

“It’s the freedom of riding the scooter wherever I want, at any time and it’s much more reliable,” said Petrisor, 40, a dog walker who commutes between Queens and Manhattan on an electric scooter he bought last March for $1,200. “This is how I look at it: I used to buy the unlimited MetroCard every month, but with this scooter, I have gotten my money’s worth and then some in 10 months.”

MTA data shows subway ridership stayed north of five million on weekdays throughout the first week of March 2020 as COVID-19 began to climb. As late as March 6 — five days after the first confirmed coronavirus case in the city emerged — there were 5.2 million daily trips.

But it marked a fleeting ridership peak that, within weeks, would crumble by more than 90% as the pandemic took hold and the subway system turned into what one commuter described last April as “an underground ghost town.”

While ridership has rebounded to nearly 1.8 million trips a day — or about 30% of what it was prior to the pandemic — the MTA is still trying to win back straphangers who have continued to stay away from the subway in large numbers.

The collapse in ridership has also forced the transit agency to repeatedly seek billions of dollars in emergency federal aid as officials call for more police amid a disturbing spate of crimes in a less-trafficked system.

Business leaders say the return of safe and efficient subways is crucial to the city’s economic recovery, and hailed the recent restoration of overnight service to all but two hours daily as a good sign.

Meanwhile, some transportation advocates say there’s a bigger opportunity to transform how New Yorkers get around: On Monday, Transportation Alternatives released a report calling for 25% of city car space to be dedicated to use by people by 2025.

‘Everything Changed’

Asked how the subway can regain riders, MTA officials pointed to cleaning and disinfecting efforts in the subway, along with mask-wearing requirements.

“We are pleased that millions of New Yorkers are once again relying on public transportation on a daily basis,” said Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit. “Our commitment to providing a safe and dependable way for customers to get where they need to go remains steadfast.”

But the MTA must contend with riders reluctant to return not only because of safety concerns, but who have moved on to other ways of getting around.

A commuter rides an empty 6 train in Manhattan, July 1, 2020.
A commuter rides an empty 6 train in Manhattan, July 1, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“It was my sole method of transportation before, but once the pandemic started, everything changed,” said Meghan Addison, 31, who used to get to work by subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan. “I just don’t foresee myself using transit unless it’s in the winter or for longer distances.”

Addison, who is now working remotely for her job at a tech company, travels almost entirely by bicycle and said that’s unlikely to change even after COVID-19 is under control.

“There are just so many things you can’t prepare for or predict in New York,” she said. “There is something really liberating about not having to rely on a subway.”

McLeveighn, who previously commuted on the No. 4 train from The Bronx to Lower Manhattan, now treks more than a mile from her home in Kingsbridge to an office in Morris Park on days when she isn’t working remotely.

“It’s a good [long] walk,” she said. “But after having been in a lockdown, it’s kind of enjoyable to walk to the office.”

‘People Aren’t Rushing Back’

Edgardo Rivera, 42, has relied on his yearly Citi Bike membership to commute from Bushwick to his job in DUMBO, Brooklyn, saying the 25-minute ride is “for my health” and tops what would be a 45-minute trip by subway.

“We’re a city of commuters and people aren’t rushing back,” he said. “There is a big mental hurdle and you’re talking to a native New Yorker who’s not afraid of the train system, like someone from out of town might be.”

Edgardo Rivera unlocks a Citi Bike from a docking station near his home in Bushwick, Feb. 26, 2021.
Rivera unlocks a Citi Bike from a docking station near his home in Bushwick.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The number of bicycle trips across East River bridges has gone up, according to city Department of Transportation data, along with usage of Citi Bike, the bike-sharing network.

More New Yorkers are buying automobiles, too, as THE CITY reported last summer. In four of the boroughs, the number of vehicle registrations increased by nearly 40 percent between August and October.

Beatrice Lors-Rousseau, 33, of Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, said she has not been on the subway since going on maternity leave in December 2019, choosing instead to travel by car.

“We’re thinking about our exposure to others,” said Lors-Rousseau, 33, whose parents live with her family.

Rivera said elected officials, the MTA and employers need to “be on the same page” about encouraging people to eventually return to the subway.

“They’ve got to do something about saving mass transit,” he said. “New York is a city that relies on mass transit whether there is a pandemic or not.”

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