Restoring service and avoiding another Summer of Hell

A Q&A with Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Renae Reynolds.

As New York powers back on amid mass coronavirus vaccination efforts and a statewide reopening of businesses scheduled for May 19, New Yorkers are returning to the city’s subways and buses. One transportation advocacy group, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, is calling for just and equitable transportation access with a new leader at its helm. Renae Reynolds is the organization’s new executive director, beginning her job last month. Prior to joining TSTC, Reynolds was a leader at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, where she managed efforts to curb transportation pollution in vulnerable communities and lobbied the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to move toward an all-electric bus fleet by 2040. She also helped pass the New York City congestion pricing program. 

City & State spoke with Reynolds about the most pressing transportation equity issues she sees today. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What are the concerns and advantages around reopening 24-hour subway service?

I think that the advantages primarily, I’ll focus on those, is that folks that are from communities that don’t have the privilege of working from home that have to work, you know, shifts that don’t sit within a 9-to-5 framework, have the opportunity to get the same type of service that anyone else would. I think it’s pretty clear that the reduction in service has impacted a particular group of people, and those are the essential workers, primarily people of color, most particularly women of color who work in vital roles across our city and who have had to deal with the effects of reduced service. So I think that it is primarily beneficial for those folks, and it is also beneficial to our economy, to get 24-hour service back on track.

Can you talk about the increase in ridership that is occurring now that New York is starting to move past the pandemic?

It’s a signal that the city is waking back up. Folks have had to get back to work for quite some time, the same essential workers that I mentioned before. These folks couldn’t necessarily transition to remote work but in addition to that the strain on our economy has been, I would say, lifted to an extent. Our transportation access needs to open up in order to continue to respond to our getting back to work, getting back to whatever our new normal is. I think it is important with that growth, with that increase in ridership, that the service from the busses and our subways is reflective of the need.

I know diminishing revenue has been a concern with fewer subway riders. How do you think MTA and transportation advocacy groups will move forward despite this financial strain?

Once service returns to its full capacity, I think more folks are going to be interested in taking the subway again. No one wants to go out there and not know what to expect, how long they’re going to wait for a train. I think that is the decision that folks have been facing, and once 24-hour service is back then … the confidence folks had in their system before will also increase. If we know that when we get to the subway platform we’re not going to wait an hour for a train to show up, we’re more likely to return to that platform tomorrow as opposed to deciding “I’m going to take a Lyft today” or if they have a car, “I’m going to drive today,” or some other mode. 

There’s been some discussion in recent days about New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang wanting to have city control of the subway system. How does TSTC feel about that?

It’s sort of a dangerous position that Andrew Yang is proposing. I think that the MTA has done a ton of work before the pandemic to improve service. If you look back to 2017 and the Summer of Hell experience, we are a far cry from that version of subway and bus service right up until before the pandemic. It probably sounds nice, it’s a great sound bite for some, but I don’t think it’s well thought through about what that would mean and how that might impact service. I think the focus has to be on stabilizing the MTA as is and making sure that as the capital plan is reactivated that the MTA is fully funded, that service is reliable, that we are taking care of our essential workers that utilize the subways, and that we’re not getting distracted by lofty ideas that just aren’t concrete. 

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