The Subway Shut Down Hits the City Hard, and The Bronx Even Harder


In a nearly unprecedented decision, the MTA has elected to periodically shut down service, closing it’s stations daily to the city that never sleeps for deep cleaning in the early hours of the morning.

Though these precautionary measures will only affect New Yorkers commuting from the hours of 1 A.M. to 5 A.M., a time slot hand picked by government and transit officials in an attempt to accommodate the many essential workers that still brave the subways, there are many for whom the change will prove more than just a minor inconvenience.

It’s long been known that New Yorker’s have a lengthy commute. Chances are, if you’re not one of the 4% of straphangers graced with the luck of getting to work in 30 minutes or less, you’ve felt the substantial blow of increased wait times that have plagued the MTA’s service across the five boroughs in the last few years. Yet now such problems seem extraneous.

3rd Avenue/149th Street Station on the 2 and 5 line hours before the historic MTA subway overnight shutdown began on May 6.

For the scores of New Yorkers working from home, no longer forced to endure the mounting perils of their ever-deteriorating public transportation, the reduction in service is negligible; a minor stain on the white collars of our metropolis.

In reality, for most middle and upper class New Yorkers, the shutdown doesn’t hit close to home. But as is the case with many other aspects of the pandemic, the story is quite different in the margins.

For workers in The Bronx, the MTA has proven more essential than ever. As thousands across the county embark on the subways to their respective jobs, many will now be presented with yet another problem: how to get back home. 

The schedules of essential workers in the concrete jungle are far from predictable, and those in the Bronx are no exception. With much of its workforce in fields with irregular hours, such as construction, the service industry, and healthcare, the borough’s largest employer, as the MTA makes the largest cut in service in over a century, The Bronx is bound to bite the lion’s share of the bullet.

While city and transit officials take aim at the myriad of problems brought forth by the virus, they’ve forgotten that residents of the city’s poorest borough, more likely to be employed in positions that cannot be done from home, are caught in the crossfire. Though the time frame of the MTA shutdown takes into account the schedules of a variety of commuters, the plan falls short for the workers to whom the subways matter most. 

Though the work day of many Bronx residents is far from typical, the unequal treatment they face is nothing new. Much like during preceding decades of deteriorating infrastructure and declining health conditions, as citizens of the city’s most ethnically diverse borough perish at rates twice those observed in the crowned cultural jewel of Manhattan, public officials turn a blind eye to The Bronx once more.

Now, as thousands from Wakefield to Mott Haven, from Kingsbridge to Throggs Neck suffer the second longest commute in the nation still, a commute now made even longer by staggered train times, many will be given the short end of a stick that barely reaches across the Harlem River. 

When faced with crisis, there is no rulebook, no comprehensive list of instructions tailored by those before us that have seen it all before. Indeed, with the crisis we now face, such predecessors do not exist.

But as the Big Apple navigates the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic, struggling to keep its people afloat, it’s lost sight of those who were destined to sink from the start.

Anchored by the weight of historical disadvantage, the needs of essential Bronx workers have long been neglected, pushed far beneath the rug with those of countless others who inhabit the outer boroughs.

Now, as officials of the city they call home deny the simple accommodation of a daily commute, it’s become clear that such needs hardly mattered to them in the first place.

While the virus continues to shed light on disparities in the minority communities of New York, disparities more systemic than viral in nature, my fellow Bronx residents and I can only wonder, when will our voices be heard?

Matt Surface works in public health and biomedical research and lives in The Bronx.

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