Like a tree without roots or a body without a spine, New York City would collapse without its subway system. That kind of dire outcome is a real risk if transit cuts proposed in New York and elsewhere come to pass, experts say, as the pandemic wreaks havoc on agency budgets. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority faces a $16.4 billion deficit through 2024; officials have asked for $12 billion in emergency relief by the end of 2021. Without that aid, the agency warns that it would be forced to make severe service cuts. In a plan presented on Wednesday, the MTA proposed to slash service on subways by 40% and on two commuter rail lines by 50%. Up to a quarter of bus routes across the city face service cuts and more than 9,300 jobs would be eliminated in 2021.

Andrew Albert, the non-voting rider advocate on the MTA board, had a stark assessment of the plan: “This would absolutely be an end to the New York way of life,” he told the New York Daily NewsFor urban straphangers — and the broader economies that depend on them — the coming months do indeed look grim. In cities across the U.S., rail and bus ridership was pounded in March and April as fears of infection and lockdown orders kept commuters at home or on alternative forms of transportation. Even as some of those workers have returned to the office, few have returned to buses and trains. In New York City, ridership on the subway remains at about 63-70% below pre-pandemic levels; nationally, transit ridership is about 76% below those levels, according to the American Public Transit Association.