When Karla Alvizures, a labor and delivery nurse at Mt. Sinai Hospital, boards the subway at the 30th Avenue-Astoria station on the N/W line in the morning, she characterizes the presence of two or three other riders sharing the car as a “relief.”
But her transfer to the 6 subway train at the 59th Street station is another story. "There's a lot of tension because no one wants to be too close to each other, but we have no other choice," she said of boarding the 6 train.
On that ride, Alvizures estimates that she shares the train car with about 10 others—mostly construction and healthcare workers. Compounding her worries are the multitude of mask-less riders, or those wearing them improperly.
The 26-year-old Astoria resident is one of the few thousand New York City residents still riding the subway in a system that usually serves millions. Ridership is now at a tenth of its usual passenger load across the system as the pandemic forces many New Yorkers to go on PAUSE and stay home. But it's also prompted essential workers to ditch the subway altogether, choosing alternate modes of travel.
A weekly-updated dataset documenting daily turnstile entries bears out what Alvizures observed about her own commute. According to the most recent data, as of May 2nd, the subway stops along the N/W lines—and indeed most of those that service Queens—saw ridership that was less than 10% of their pre-pandemic numbers, on par with the current city average. By contrast, trains that service the Bronx—including 4, 5, and 6 subways—are seeing some of the highest rates of continued ridership, serving between 20% and 35% of their historical averages.
The data above–examining ridership for May 1st–shows a clear overlap between areas with high poverty rates and subway stations serving relatively large portions of their normal ridership, an indication that, as reports have suggested, essential workers are overwhelmingly low-paid workers. The areas where a larger percentage of healthcare workers live—the Bronx and parts of southern Brooklyn—are also where subway use remains higher than the rest of the city.
The available data does not pinpoint how many of these riders are healthcare workers, how many are essential workers, or how many are simply flouting shelter-in-place measures. But even if not conclusive, these demographic slices offer important context on the New Yorkers who are still relying on the subway system.
Of course, the subway represents just one way New York City residents are getting around in this crisis. "I felt I would be at risk taking the subway," said Lauren Carey, a neonatal registered nurse at New York Presbyterian-Columbia in Washington Heights who has started driving to work, citing the poor ventilation of the train cars, and a skepticism that they could be kept sufficiently sanitized.
But infection wasn't the only risk she had in mind. On one of her final days as a straphanger in mid-March, Carey, while wearing her scrubs, was verbally accosted on the subway platform by a conspiracy theorist who wanted to know what she and her colleagues were hiding.
"This is kind of freaky," she recalled. "I need to really protect myself in case people want to start being hateful towards healthcare workers."
Secondhand reports of assaults on doctors and nurses had been circulating among her colleagues at the time, and have persisted in media reports as recently as last week. Carey now drives the roughly two miles from Inwood to Washington Heights, and parks in the facility’s visitor parking lot, which is closed to visitors and free for staff through June.
For some, the ongoing pandemic hasn’t forced a change in drivers' morning routine, but sped it up.
Amanda Harris, who administers COVID-19 tests across the city, is among those who have seen a smoother ride on the road. On her drive to Rikers Island—where she was administering tests–it took 15 minutes to get there instead of the usual hour before the pandemic. Harris is happy to have an “easier” drive, unencumbered by traffic.
But there’s a downside. “[It’s] also scarier, because cars are going way too fast,” Harris said.
That sentiment is supported by the increase in the number of heavy-footed drivers along school zones. Statistics show the city's speed cameras across 750 school zones–which operate weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.–issued 269,396 tickets in March compared to 146,092 in February, and 124,582 in January.