Remember rush hour? Back in the Before Times, pre-COVID-19, pre-curfew, when yellow school buses plied the streets at dawn, New Yorkers slid into the subway’s numberless gullets, and drivers settled in with 1010 WINS or a nice audiobook for the morning slog? If you were up early enough, you could feel the roads starting to buzz before they slowed, then seized. In the evening, the rumpled masses reversed course, standing elbow-to-kidney until they could disperse. If you loved humanity, you could find a lot of it at Penn Station at either end of the workday, jammed into a companionable huddle, like walruses on an arctic beach. The pandemic has temporarily freed us from rush hour. One way to keep the city healthy and make it more equitable would be to abolish it for good.
Rush hour (which should really be called slog hour) was never pleasant, but the prospect of its return is terrifying. Mayor Bill de Blasio has demanded that the MTA block seats and mark off spots where passengers can stand at a safe distance from each other, which is the kind of suggestion that only someone who never rides the subway could make. The “plan,” if you can call it that, would allow a trickle of passengers into an immense system, like trying to fill a barrel with an eyedropper. The line to get into a subway station would stretch back to Hauppauge, and by the time the last commuter got to board, it would be time to head home again. “The Mayor has a lot of nice ideas with no actual plans to solve, manage or implement. The NYPD is responsible for enforcement and compliance in the subways and we’ve heard zilch from city hall 48 hours after their press release ‘plan’ on how to do that,” remarked MTA spokesperson Abbey Collins in a tweet, calculating that a socially distanced subway system could carry roughly eight percent of its usual ridership — less than it was serving at the height of the pandemic. City Hall does have an alternate strategy: shrug. Some commuters trying to avoid pre-COVID-style intimacy with strangers on a train may try to drive into Manhattan instead — and find themselves spending much of the day enjoying total gridlock.
The daily back-and-forth mass migration is a paradox: a constant in almost any thriving city and also a toxic spill of time, fumes, money, and mental energy. Years of research have documented the cost of these brutal commutes, and it falls most heavily on the poor, who often live farthest from their jobs and have the fewest choices about how to get there. Even before a pandemic — not to mention widespread protests — made getting around so anxiety-provoking, the rituals of the workday threw the entire transit system out of whack, guaranteeing daily spasms of congestion both above and below ground. Penn Station’s platforms are so overburdened that LIRR trains have to idle in tunnels while passengers file up to the street. New Jersey Transit trains unload their morning multitudes, then go while away the daytime hours in a Queens railyard until it’s time for the slow trip home. Subways are packed in one direction and empty in the other. Airless city buses can’t move because of car traffic, cars can’t get through because of deliveries, freight trucks get stuck behind school buses and garbage crews, and God help an ambulance trying to slice through the whole miserable thicket.
What purpose does this schedule serve? The timing of the school day is an anachronistic mess. Children are no longer needed back at the farm for afternoon chores. A teenager’s brain barely begins to flicker until noon. School buildings are packed during one part of the day and empty the rest. If we switched to a two-shift system, we could make better use of the school buildings we have, instead of spending fortunes to build more.
Contemporary work life is equally maladapted. There is nothing sacrosanct about the 9-to-5 workday — or 9:30 to 5:30, or 10 to 6 — and yet the rigidity of that schedule governs the movement of millions. Originally, it was a hard-won concession, designed to ease the life of laborers by shortening the workday to eight hours so they could have eight more to themselves and still get a good night’s sleep. But as cities expanded, commutes ate into leisure time and technology prevented many people from ever going off the clock. Even the supposedly fluid gig economy has been jammed into the rush-hour box.
I’ve seen two extreme scenarios for the post-lockdown period. In the first, office workers refuse to return to their desks, corporations relinquish their real estate and exist only in the cloud, which removes cities’ primary reason to exist. In the second, many do go back to their workplaces, either voluntarily or under duress. Those who can, drive; those who can’t, turn the subway into a COVID superhighway. Much more rational than either extreme is a more fluid city, in which home and workplace are intertwined.
Rush hour is not a policy or a law; it’s a tangled mass of habits. But the government does have leverage. During the 1918 flu pandemic, New York’s Board of Health mandated that schools and businesses stagger their hours to dilute rush-hour crowding. As we emerge from the worst of the COVID crisis, the mayor and City Council could experiment with similar measures, using a newly broad range of tools. The technology of congestion pricing can be used as a spigot to control the flow of traffic into Manhattan. Trucks could be allotted entry times by reservation, with greater availability and steep discounts for nighttime hours. Delivery services, too, can be more efficiently regulated so that UPS, Amazon, the Postal Service, and grocery services aren’t all pulling up to the same address at the same time, jockeying for precious curb space. Every parking spot in the five boroughs could be metered, paid, permitted, or eliminated, giving the city far more control over how the streets are used.
These changes would disrupt the ordinary rhythms of the city and drive a lot of people nuts. Unintended consequences would pop up all over the place, affecting everything from union work rules to maintenance schedules. Those who find their workdays out of sync with their partners’ or their kids’ will need a more extensive and flexible childcare system (something that workers at all income levels badly need anyway). But those potential snags have to be compared to the dysfunction that already exists.
If the city leads, people will follow, building on adaptations they’ve already made. As companies try to thin the population of their offices, they might encourage more workers to stay home, asking them to take turns coming in for meetings two or three times a week. In some professions, teams can synchronize their work across multiple time zones. In others, the best way to meet a deadline is for some employees to work in bed, after the rest of the family has gone to sleep. Shifts and store hours can move around too. Some pre-COVID-19 trends — made necessary by a global economy, nurtured by America’s workaholic culture, abetted by technology, and tolerated by fearful employees — can finally be made to improve the quality of life, rather than erode it.
There are two ways to alleviate rush hour: change the space or change the schedule. A growing army of work-from-homers, realizing they can have their verdant suburban life without going through Penn Station every day, can spread out ever farther from midtown Manhattan, loosening their bonds with the city and binding themselves ever tighter to their cars. That way lies a quicker road to climate disaster. Alternatively, a dense and lively city can stay that way, spreading crowds over larger chunks of the day, making everything function more smoothly.
In New York, as in the rest of the universe, time and space are bound together: Smite the dragon of rush hour and you reshape the city in beneficial ways. In the past few months, residential districts have become de facto home-office districts, making them vibrant at times that used to be dead. Once the lockdown lifts, the usual downtown necessities, like coffee, lunch, and co-working spaces, may drift in, too. The reverse can happen — has already happened — too: Tens of thousands of New Yorkers live in former business areas like the Financial District, creating demands for schools, parks, and playgrounds.
As the dominance of midtown Manhattan breaks down and employers discover alternatives to packing employees in huge, infection-friendly indoor corrals, companies might also finally venture into parts of the city they have traditionally spurned. The Bloomberg administration rezoned downtown Brooklyn for high-rise construction in 2004, hoping to nurture a new office district; instead, the area evolved into a forest of apartment towers. Amazon’s plan to set up a second headquarters in Long Island City was scrapped last year. Maybe now, though, New York is ready to rejigger the relationship between work and home, mess up its rigidified commuting patterns, and embrace a workday that matches the variety of natural human rhythms.The City that Never Gets Enough Sleep could evolve into the City that Sleeps and Works Whenever It Damn Well Pleases.