NYC’s underground retail is in pretty bad shape

Stores and modes of transportation often go hand in hand. The 1980s saw the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) run roughly 350 stores, kiosks, and concessions. Over the years, more were built to keep up with the increase in travelers. According to English News, there are presently 195 retail spots in large, busy subway stations.

Based on what former and current shop owners told the New York Times (NYT), subway systems have so many stores because of the amount of people riding the trains daily. Each passenger is another potential customer.

While this used to be a great money maker, the same can’t be said nowadays.

The amount of people taking public transit has also decreased. Almost 75% of public transit seats, the MTA says, are empty. The transportation services provided by the city started seeing a decrease in sales before the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote and hybrid work options additionally impacted public transit negatively.

Eight years ago, 40 stores opened in Columbus Circle’s underground market. Today, according to Staging Area Barber Shop, only one remains open. Meanwhile, Lower Manhattan’s once-busy Fulton Center and Midtown storefronts in Port Authority and Rockefeller Center stations are more-or-less empty.

Last weekend, The New York Times (NYT) reported “The surplus of space means a continuing decline in retail revenue when the agency…recently lost a projected 1 billion U.S. dollars in annual revenue”. This is a significant problem, considering that the MTA is the country’s largest system of buses, subways, and trains.

The loss of retail, and the overall decline of the transit system, is painful for travelers. The NYT has commented that travelers feel “unease…Some doors have been locked…windows covered with for-lease signs…discarded items…Homeless people have taken over empty corners of retail areas and sleep in stairwells”.

With fear for safety, deplorable conditions, and less of a reason to use the public transportation system, it’s no wonder that retailers that once relied on those who took the train to keep their business afloat are starting to struggle or shut down completely. The world continues to change, and, unless conditions are improved, this “underground retail” might soon be a thing of the past.


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