Why are the NYC subways still closed overnight?

Calls to reopen the subways for 24/7 service are growing after nearly a year of closures.

An MTA worker sanitizing the card reader.

An MTA worker sanitizing the card reader. Patrick Cashin / MTA New York City Transit

When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority made the decision in April to end 24/7 subway service in New York City, the reasoning was to allow for the deep disinfecting of subway cars and stations as the pandemic raged in the city – and as part of an effort to keep homeless New Yorkers from sleeping on trains.

But nearly a year into the pandemic, these kinds of cleaning efforts have been dismissed by some experts as “hygiene theater,” noting that the spread of the coronavirus largely happens by airborne transmission, and not surface transmission. To boot, the closures don’t save the MTA any money, as officials acknowledged at a joint legislative hearing on Tuesday. “That was not done as a cost-saving effort,” MTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran said of the closures. “We are still running trains. They are to get our workforce back and forth.”

The MTA has stood behind the continued closures for the purposes of cleaning, and cited a survey from the fall of roughly 20,000 customers in which 76% agreed or strongly agreed that the cleaning made them feel safer. Calling the authority’s disinfecting efforts “hygiene theater” was way off base, MTA Chief Safety Officer Patrick Warren told City & State. “Think about hospitals and everywhere else. We clean and disinfect the hell out of these locations, and that’s the same thing we’re going to do in our subway system,” Warren said. “No one is going to come back into our system if it is not a safe and healthy system. That is just job one for the MTA.” Advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection currently says that frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected at least daily. Asked whether the MTA might be able to continue its disinfecting efforts and reopen 24/7 service, Warren said that extra passengers do get in the way of their cleaning.

A spokesperson for the MTA added that when they asked for advice from the Environmental Protection Agency at the end of 2020 about whether they should focus solely on aerosols, they were told to continue their work disinfecting surfaces as well.

While the subways are closed from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., trains are still running and are only open to transit workers and police. The MTA may be getting its own workforce back and forth, but a city full of essential workers who require late-night transit are forced to make an extra effort to get around overnight. The MTA has ramped up its bus service because of the subway closures, but some essential workers find that to be an inadequate substitute.

After Tuesday’s hearing, some lawmakers called for 24/7 service to resume immediately. “Enough is enough. We are in the middle of a 24/7 vaccination campaign, and this is a 24/7 city. We demand the return of 24/7 service,” mayoral candidate and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams wrote on Twitter. “Reopen our overnight subway service NOW.”

Assembly Member Robert Carroll and state Sen. Brad Hoylman are sponsoring a bill that would require 24/7 subway service unless a state of emergency is in effect. The bill passed the state Senate last year, but hasn’t passed the Assembly.