Twenty years ago, Lower Manhattan emptied out and stayed empty for weeks. Save for rescue workers, journalists, and a few intrepid gawkers, one of the city’s two main office districts remained silent until late fall. In an eerie reprise of that time, Lower Manhattan is once again largely devoid of office workers, due to Covid-19. The two points in time aren’t unconnected. The federal, state, and city governments’ joint failure to use post-9/11 money to build and rebuild smart transportation infrastructure is one reason commuters are staying away today.
New York’s white-collar workers returned to their jobs quickly after 9/11, though it didn’t seem so at the time. The no-go perimeter around Ground Zero expanded over the first few days but then gradually shrunk from 14th Street to Houston Street to Canal Street to just a buffer block around the World Trade Center site by Halloween. By late fall, Lower Manhattan’s office workers were back—some wearing masks (another eerie parallel) outdoors to keep out the dust.
Workers came back out of a grim, determined patriotism—we couldn’t let the terrorists win—and also out of practicality. Toiling on family-shared computers with slow Internet connections and only a household landline, employees and their employers knew that working remotely indefinitely was not an option. The need to return outweighed the real public-health risks, as well as fears of new attacks—maybe next time, on the subways. In 2002, the Metropolitan Transportation System saw 1.574 billion trips on subways and commuter rail, up slightly from 1.568 billion in 2001 and 1.542 billion in 2000. For all the fears about how 9/11 would change New York, little actually did change, and not for long.
The Covid-19 era is different. As of the last week of August, only 22.3 percent of New York office workers had returned to their desks, according to Kastle Systems, an office-security firm, well below the 33.1 percent American city average (though that figure isn’t very good, either). Subway ridership remains well below half of normal. People may or may not like working at home, and they may or may not be more productive, but they’ve proven for 18 months that they can do it. That evidence on the ground changes cities forever.
So what long-term factors prohibit people from snapping back to a five-day-a-week commute, or even a four-day-a-week in-office schedule? One is transit. In one survey, 84 percent of remote workers cited “no commute,” as the top benefit of staying home. This effect is magnified in New York, which has the longest and most expensive commutes in the country. Who wants to stand in a long line at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, waiting to cram onto a bus, or stand in Penn Station, because the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is delayed, or be told to get off the subway at Kings Highway in Brooklyn, two long stops short of your destination, and walk the rest of the way in the dark and cold? A monthly LIRR pass costs anywhere from $197 to $500, depending on where you’re going; a Metro North pass ranges from $186 to $536. These all add up to thousands of dollars yearly, and people have noticed. New York has long treated commuting as a utility, not an amenity. That is: people have no choice, and they have no real say over the cost. If they want a high-paying job, or any job, they must pay for it.
New York could have changed all that after 9/11. The terror attacks damaged or destroyed more than $1 billion worth of transport infrastructure—the Lower Manhattan PATH station, as well as two subway stations at the World Trade Center site and parts of their tunnels. The $21.5 billion in federal aid for the state and city after 9/11 amply covered these costs, according to the New York state comptroller. New York also could have taken advantage of the ongoing reconstruction to do things like straighten out passageways and forge better connections among transit lines downtown.
Yet New York—mostly Governor George Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver—insisted on empire building with their 9/11 money. The Port Authority and the MTA did straighten out connections underground, sure. But they also insisted on the mall approach. The MTA used eminent domain to displace small businesses on Broadway to build its Fulton Street Transit Center, a mostly dead aboveground space. The Port Authority built the massive Oculus—ditto.
These projects massively outstripped their federal funding. The Fulton project, originally priced at $750 million, cost $1.4 billion. The Oculus was supposed to run under $1 billion; it totaled $4 billion. That cost means that, once the “free” federal money ran out, New York had to foot the bill with money that could have gone to modernizing subway signals or increasing tunnel capacity. As then-Port Authority chief Pat Foye, who inherited the Oculus from predecessors, said just before the edifice opened, “We would not today prioritize spending $3.7 billion on the transit hub over other significant infrastructure needs.” One of those needs is a better bus terminal in Midtown, still unfunded. Meantime, the quality of commute into the existing terminal is a drawback for returning riders.
To lure office workers back, New York should lose the empire-building approach and build smarter: people want faster, more consistent service at lower cost, not massive new complexes in which to spend (they hope) just a few minutes each day. Our misplaced post-9/11 priorities have helped keep Manhattan’s post-9/11 office towers empty.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images