Let’s Talk About Closing the Subway

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Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Politicians often shun the suggestion that they should avoid clichés like the plague, and officeholders in New York are no exception. Some of them have leaned extra hard lately on one of their more shopworn banalities: how theirs is the city that never sleeps.

One after another, they’ve invoked it in giving a Bronx cheer to an eyebrow-arching suggestion that the city’s subways be shut down for a few hours on weeknights, as is the case with mass-transit systems around the world. The point is to make it easier, and perhaps less expensive, to perform routine maintenance and essential repairs — tasks complicated by trains that are constantly in motion.

This idea comes from the Regional Plan Association, a venerable organization that explores ways for metropolitan New York to cope with challenges, from salvaging mass transit to withstanding climate change. Every few decades, the group issues a hefty analysis containing scores of proposals. Its latest blueprint is out. Tucked away in its 370 or so pages is the recommendation that has caused much hullabaloo.

Give the subways sorely needed time to regain their strength, it says, by closing them from 12:30 a.m. to 5 a.m., Mondays to Thursdays. The trains would run 24 hours, as ever, on weekends. The association casts the proposal as doing the greatest good for the greatest number of commuters. It cites statistics for 2016 showing that about 85,000 people use trains in the wee hours — a mere 1.5 percent of the average weekday ridership of 5.7 million. Of course, those 85,000 can’t be ignored. Many of them work overnight shifts. A steady flow of buses would be needed to mimic train routes.

“We knew it would be controversial,” Tom Wright, the association’s president, said. That may qualify as the understatement of the year. Negative reaction has been intense.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority shrugged off the idea as a nonstarter. Mayor Bill de Blasio declared 24/7 subway service to be “part of our birthright.” Bottom line: The proposed shutdown is not about to happen. The same, it would seem, may be said of a related recommendation to create a subway development corporation, an entity that would be charged exclusively with massaging the underground rail network into reasonable shape.

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