In both New York and London, core office districts have been empty for half a year. Both cities face a long, hard slog of recovery. But London has an edge: a more rational approach to public transportation.
Transit ridership is a fraction of what it was. In New York, subway ridership is still down 73 percent; bus ridership, 54 percent. In London, Tube ridership is down 69 percent; buses, 43 percent.
The point of reviving transit is to get people back into crowded office districts — the City of London, Midtown Manhattan. In Britain, government grasps this. Prime Minister (and former London Mayor) Boris Johnson is launching an ad campaign encouraging people to go back to work.
Mayor Sadiq Khan telegraphs the same message: “If we all stay at home working, it’s a big problem for central London,” he said last month. “Small businesses rely on your workers going to work, the café bars, the dry cleaners, the shoe-repair shops. . . . We are doing what we can to make sure London is as safe as it can be.”
The two men are hardly united — they bicker stupidly — but they get the point. A ghost-town urban core is a disaster.
Has any one of Mayor de Blasio, Gov. Cuomo or President Trump acknowledged this basic fact?
People won’t come if they don’t trust transit. As it happens, Khan recently appointed a new Transport for London chief: none other than Andy Byford, the British native who, frustrated with Cuomo’s constant interference, quit running New York’s subways and buses in January.
“I miss New York City,” Byford says, e-showing off his new view of the London Eye. “I read The Post every morning” online. But “there’s lots to do here” in London.
One London advantage: coordination. Byford’s job “is the MTA and city DOT all rolled into one.” He is in charge of trains and buses — and in charge of streets, such as where to put bus and bike lanes. If things go wrong, everyone knows whom to blame, unlike in New York, where the MTA must depend on New York City’s goodwill in creating special lanes (slow, so far, compared to London).
The second advantage is leadership. In June, before Byford’s arrival, TfL increased the congestion-pricing levy by 30 percent, to nearly $20. Increasing the charge was “controversial,” says Byford, but London “knew it cannot have a car-led recovery.”
A third advantage is money. TfL already had an edge. Thanks to a combination of a much lower health-care burden for workers and bus services that are contracted out to private operators, for example, it moves 2.1 billion passengers a year for about $8.4 billion, whereas the MTA moves 2.6 billion passengers for $13.7 billion.
COVID-19 has decimated both cities’ revenues. London’s higher congestion charge helps — but like New York, London needs national support. TfL has gotten the $2.6 billion it asked the national government for earlier this year.
Now, it is asking for another $4.6 billion — and is almost certain to get it, no congressional (parliamentary) drama involved. Boris’s main request? That TfL tie new aid to cost reform, like driverless trains, common in Paris, Lyon and Turin.
The national and local government are also cooperating on limited free trips for commuters to coax them to venture back.
Last, crime. De Blasio has sat by as a crime pandemic has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic underground. From April through June, subway felony crime was down only 47.5 percent — meaning, with ridership down double than that most of the period, each rider was at higher risk, per capita, of becoming a victim.
Murders have more than doubled, to four, and robbery is up 5 percent. Reports of conductors being pushed to the tracks hardly win people back.
In London, “we’ve not seen an uptick,” says Byford. In fact, the opposite: April through July, crimes “against the person” in the Underground are down 67.5 percent, robbery down 52.4 percent. London’s returning commuters have one less thing to worry about.
New York and London are sister cities — twin capitals of finance, law, entertainment and tourism. Without drastic change stateside, one sibling may emerge from this crisis more radiant than the other.
Correction: Last week, I wrote erroneously that Lincoln Center’s outdoor plazas remained shuttered. Lincoln Center has reopened them during the day. The city-run Columbus Circle Park remains closed.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal. Twitter: @NicoleGelinas