He is public transportation’s loudest cheerleader, boasting that he takes the subway “virtually every day.” He has told residents who complain about overcrowded trains to “get real” and he constantly encourages New Yorkers to follow his environmentally friendly example.
But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s commute is not your average straphanger’s ride.
On mornings that he takes the subway from home, Mr. Bloomberg is picked up at his Upper East Side town house by a pair of king-size Chevrolet Suburbans. The mayor is driven 22 blocks to the subway station at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue, where he can board an express train to City Hall. His drivers zip past his neighborhood station, a local subway stop a five-minute walk away.
That means Mr. Bloomberg — whose much-discussed subway rides have become an indelible component of his public image — spends a quarter of his ostensibly subterranean commute in an S.U.V.
“I never see him,” said Namela Hossou, who sells newspapers every morning at the downtown entrance to the mayor’s nearest stop, at 77th Street, four blocks from the mayor’s house. “Never, never.”
The mayor’s chief spokesman, Stu Loeser, was asked in an interview yesterday whether being driven to an express station distanced Mr. Bloomberg from the experience of the average Manhattan subway rider. Mr. Loeser replied, “Who is the average Manhattan subway-goer? I don’t think it’s an answerable question. The mayor rides the subway like anyone else. Zips his card through, stands on the platform, and waits for a train to come.”
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority chuckled when asked how common it is for Manhattan residents to be driven to the subway. “Where would you drive from in Manhattan to a subway station? That would be pretty crazy,” the spokesman, Jeremy Soffin, said. Told of the mayor’s morning routine, he added, “Most people don’t have chauffeurs.”
And most people don’t have reporters from The New York Times watching their travels, as Mr. Bloomberg did for five weeks. Almost every morning, two Suburbans waited outside his East 79th Street town house, sometimes with engines idling and windows up, until their charge was ready to leave. Uniformed police officers and the mayor’s security detail flanked the doorway as Mr. Bloomberg emerged and ducked into one of the waiting vehicles.
As they head to the express subway, they pass two No. 6 local stops, at 77th Street and 68th Street. They pull up to the 59th Street station, across the street from Bloomingdale’s.
Mr. Bloomberg, who entered politics as a self-made media mogul, struck a populist note early in his mayoral campaign by pledging to use mass transit. Since starting at City Hall he has invited reporters, photographers and television news anchors to ride along with him.
The image of the billionaire straphanger has paid enormous political dividends. One transit group designated him the “MetroCard mayor,” and Newsday lauded him as the city’s “regular Joe Commuter.” Shortly after he took office, The New York Times declared Mr. Bloomberg “the first subway-riding mayor.” And his tales from the underground — for example, getting stranded on a northbound No. 4 train for half an hour — have made for useful anecdotes at his news conferences.
Mr. Bloomberg’s use of the subway to get to work appears to have declined over time. In January 2002, he reported taking the train all but one day of his first three weeks. Nowadays, it appears, the S.U.V. is his primary mode of transportation. Based on the reporters’ observations, the mayor took the subway to work about twice a week.
Mr. Loeser said the mayor “walked to the subway when he first started as mayor, and he stopped doing it when cameras staked out his house every morning and walked with him.”
Informed that reporters never noticed any photographers milling outside of the mayor’s town house over the past five weeks, Mr. Loeser replied, “So you’re saying the solution worked.”
Being driven to the 59th Street station shaves about a third off the mayor’s commuting time, based on a reporter’s test runs. It also saves him aggravations others cannot avoid, like taking the local and transferring to the express.
“He goes to various stops depending on where he is going and where he is coming from,” Mr. Loeser said. Asked why the mayor would not take the train from the closest station to his house, Mr. Loeser deferred to his previous answer, “I’ve said, he takes the train from various stops.”
More recently, the mayor has emphasized his use of mass transit as part of his PlaNYC environmental platform, and to promote his controversial congestion pricing proposal. (Under that plan, an initiative partially intended to reduce greenhouse emissions from traffic in Manhattan, each of Mr. Bloomberg’s Suburbans would have to pay $4 a day for the right to drive below 86th Street.)
The Suburbans are “selected, owned, and maintained” by the N.Y.P.D., which organizes security for the mayor, according to Mr. Loeser. Asked why the mayor required two sport-utility vehicles, Mr. Loeser declined to comment.
Environmentally speaking, “the Suburban is one of the worst, if not the worst” sport utility vehicles on the market, said Dan Becker, who studies vehicle emissions for the Sierra Club. “It’s way up there.”
But the mayor’s S.U.V.’s come equipped with FlexFuel engines, which allow the use of either gasoline or E85 ethanol, a cleaner, corn-based fuel. Mr. Loeser said the mayor’s vehicles “use ethanol at all times when he is in New York City, and whenever it is available when he travels.”
According to federal figures, a 2007 Suburban 1500 fueled by ethanol ranks below the average vehicle in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. An ethanol-fueled Suburban produces 9.2 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, placing it around the midpoint of vehicles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
At least one public transit advocate interviewed yesterday said it did not matter how long the mayor actually spent on the subway — but that he was seen using the system.
“To me, I think it’s terrific that he has made a point of taking the subway in a more public statement way,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives.
An NBC News segment on Mr. Bloomberg, broadcast June 12, described him as “the diminutive mayor who commutes by subway.” On camera, Brian Williams joined the mayor for a morning commute on the No. 4 train.
At one point, as Mr. Bloomberg discussed his preference for subway travel, Mr. Williams remarked, “And even in your S.U.V., there’s no getting through traffic as fast.”
The mayor, in a grave voice, concurred: “Not a chance.”