Stuck in the Middle: When Transit-Dependent Communities Lack Good Transit

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NYC neighhorhoods with low household incomes and high unemployment lack the excellent transit access to jobs available in the city’s most affluent areas. Chart: NYU Rudin Center

New Yorkers who live close to the center of town are mostly affluent and have great transit options connecting them to a wealth of job opportunities. On the edges of town, people are not quite as well-off, and most can get to work by driving their own cars. In between are the least affluent neighborhoods, where New Yorkers rely on transit but the number of jobs accessible by train or bus is much smaller than in the city core.

A new report from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation [PDF] identifies this middle band of neighborhoods as the area where transit improvements can do the most to connect more people to more jobs.

The study ranked the city’s 177 zip codes by the number of jobs accessible by a transit trip lasting 60 minutes or less at 9 a.m. on a weekday. Grouping the neighborhoods into three tiers of transit access, the authors then at income and commute data for each tier.

The top third of transit-accessible neighborhoods have high incomes, and 79 percent of commuters travel by foot or transit. Not surprisingly, the highest-ranked neighborhoods are in or near major employment centers in Manhattan. In the top 59 neighborhoods, the unemployment rate is 8.3 percent and average household income is $108,209.

Things look different in the city’s least transit-accessible neighborhoods, where 53 percent of residents drive to work. These areas, mostly beyond the reach of the subway, include neighborhoods as diverse as the low-income southern reaches of East New York and the wealthy south shore of Staten Island. Combining this mix of demographics, the unemployment rate in these neighborhoods averages 9.7 percent and the average household income is $61,381.

Then there’s the middle third of neighborhoods, where people are heavily dependent on transit but access to jobs via train or bus is mediocre. In this band of New York, 67 percent of workers commute by transit, the unemployment rate, at 11.7 percent, is higher than the rest of the city, and average income is lower, at $46,773.

It’s exactly these commuters, who live just beyond the reach of convenient transit but lack the resources to own a private car, who could benefit most from improvements to the city’s transit network.

The Rudin Center report echoes research from the Pratt Center for Community Development, which found that more than 758,000 city residents, concentrated in the outer boroughs, commute at least an hour each way to work. Two-thirds of those workers live in households earning less than $35,000 a year.

Among its recommendations, the Rudin Center suggests expanding the weekend CityTicket program to include off-peak weekday service on Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road. This would lower fares for many outer-borough commuters and could be the first step to integrating commuter rail with the rest of the transit network.

The report also champions “smart shuttles” that offer flexible service based on demand concentrated in specific neighborhoods, as well as informal private transit like dollar vans and senior shuttles.

For larger-scale transportation fixes in transit-starved parts of the city, the report focuses on Bus Rapid Transit, which it calls “essential” to expanding transit options. Dedicated lanes, proof-of-payment, and traffic signal priority are needed most urgently on Woodhaven Boulevard and Flatlands Avenue, the report says, pointing to the Pratt Center’s work identifying eight routes for BRT in the outer boroughs.

Transit advocates cited the Rudin Center findings to make the case for major expansion of Bus Rapid Transit.

“Bus Rapid Transit is a social justice issue for New York City,” said Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin, “…especially in neighborhoods that are not on subway lines and where people have to commute the farthest to get to work.”

“Too many New Yorkers live in transit-starved areas with minimal access to public transportation, and as a result, face significant job inequity,” said the BRT for NYC coalition, a group of labor unions, advocates, and business associations supporting Bus Rapid Transit. “More city and state funds supporting the MTA’s five year capital plan will ensure projects like BRT improve access to jobs and housing for millions of NYC residents.”

The coalition has already lined up a united front of support for BRT from council members along Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards. Yesterday, Assembly Member Nily Rozic penned a piece in the Daily News with Asian Americans for Equality Executive Director Christopher Kui backing BRT in eastern Queens, including between Flushing and Jamaica.

By the end of Mayor de Blasio’s first term, the administration has committed to launching 13 new Select Bus Service routes (the brand for enhanced bus routes in NYC — most of which don’t quite meet the threshold to be considered true BRT). While NYC DOT has shown solid concepts for SBS on Woodhaven and planning is underway for a route connecting Jamaica to Flushing, the administration cut the ribbon on just one SBS route, the M60, during its first year.

  • ahwr

    If a train costs 25k (capital) per weekday rider just to cover interest (5%) on debt, never mind paying back principal, you’d have to save more than $4 per trip. High use bus routes don’t cost $4 per trip, and subways aren’t free to run. Most bus riders are not on corridors where good bus service would not offer enough capacity.

  • Joe R.

    You’re not just building what you call “bike boondoggles” to help low income people. You’re building them because frankly there are few viable options for decently fast transit in this city (i.e. overall door-to-door average speeds in the 15 to 20 mph area). You can do that with bikes and a decent bike network. You can’t do it with anything else, except maybe the subway, and only then if your origin and destination are near a line with frequent service. Most travel in this city by public transit ends up averaging well under 10 mph, which frankly is pathetic in this day and age.

    We would need to expand the housing supply dramatically to make a dent in housing costs here due to the simple lack of comparable places to live in the US. If you want a place where you can live car-free in the US, NYC is just about the only place to go. The real answer then isn’t necessarily getting rid of single family homes in NYC, but rather making more cities in the US where it’s possible to have a car-free urban lifestyle. There’s a glut of suburban housing in the US but a major shortage of urban housing.

  • Bolwerk

    That’s not the right way to look at it though. If you spend a billion dollars to build a piece of infrastructure, figure you’re paying out about $65M/year in bonds at 5% APR. With 30,000 daily users, that’s around $2200 dollars per daily rider. With 100,000 daily users, it’s around $650.

  • ahwr

    By 7 miles it’s much lower than 15%.

    In copenhagen you get something like 2.5 km by bike per capita per day. I think Groningen might be closer to 4.5. There is nowhere in the world where cycling long distance is common.

    The infrastructure to serve the short trips that are common are different from what you want built. If you can’t bike to a subway safely and comfortably how on earth could you bike to one of your viaducts?

    Buses suck? Sounds like a good reason to improve them. Ridership grows when you make buses suck less.

  • ahwr

    Bike transit is less than 10mph average in copenhagen. You won’t get it above that if you have a sizable share of the city biking. Make it safe and comfortable to bike in each neighborhood at that speed and you’ll cut out time spent waiting for a bus you take to the train.

    Seattle, portland, chicago, boston and many other cities are great for car free living, many parts of each are better than much of nyc. Want to make parts of nyc where not having a car can be tough? Allow people to redevelop their detached house that’s falling apart into something denser. Suburban housing in the city helps nobody.

  • Bolwerk

    That first sentence doesn’t even mean anything. Either way, buses have far from nontrivial capital costs themselves. And you were comparing what must be ROW restructuring costs and/or some incremental vehicle acquisition with a project with a much bigger scope. That comparison is just silly.

    Most bus riders are on corridors where buses absolutely make sense: medium or low use over over short distances.

  • Bolwerk

    The way to “improve” them is to use them properly. They don’t suck if your expectations for them are reasonably in line with what they can do.

    They work best when they have a good subway system to work with!

  • Joe R.

    There is nowhere in the world where cycling long distance is common.

    Actually there is-third world countries where the only options for many are bikes or feet. People there will walk or bike many tens of miles on dirt roads when they need to. Of course, with few driving, those roads are reasonably safe to walk or bike on, so no need for a separate bike network.

  • Joe R.

    Any decent bike infrastructure regardless of distance requires two things-freedom from motor traffic, and minimal or no stopping. Once you build enough short distance infrastructure it starts to be possible to use it for longer trips.

    In general people bike slower when they’re going a shorter distance simply because the time savings from going faster are negligible. A <10mph average for what is mostly shorter trips hardly implies the same infrastructure wouldn't do for longer, faster trips. David Hembrow regularly averages 20+ mph on the same infrastructure kids use to get to school: http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2009/11/commuting-speeds.html

    Not many detached suburban houses in NYC. In fact, not many suburban houses at all. Most are on 1/10th acre or smaller lots, not your typical McMansions on 1 acre.. You can in theory replace them with a 2 or 3 family house, but when you do, guess what, your car traffic problems just got worse. When we get subways within a mile or less of where single family homes are now then you'll see a lot of interest in densifying the area.

  • Bolwerk

    I just pulled up NTD stats for NYCTA.

    Capital utilization/Passenger miles (2012):

    Buses: $0.15
    Subway: $0.24

    Kind of surprised it’s that close. A bug with my PDF software is preventing me from reading the previous year clearly, but it looks like buses had *higher* per-psgr.-mi capital costs that year: 27 cents for buses vs. 26 cents for rail.

  • Bolwerk

    Maybe, optimistically, they are figuring it out given the increasing popularity of SBS in political circles.

    But NYS politicians are odd. They’re populists, but they’re also usually really greedy and near-sighted. So they don’t want to actually spend public funds on investments in the future, even if ultimately it helps people more than just about anything else could.

  • ahwr

    Are you telling me there are third world regions where most people bike many tens of miles every day? Which ones?

  • Kevin Love

    If you really believe that, then you have never been cycling in Copenhagen.

  • Joe R.

    People don’t take long trips daily anywhere, regardless of mode. I’m just saying if you looked at mode share for trips of that length in third world countries, you’ll find while such trips are probably rare, most are done on foot or bike simply because there just aren’t any alternatives for most people.

    I also feel in a place like NYC with proper infrastructure you could end up with a decent mode by bike, even for trips in the 5 to 15 mile range. That’s especially true if we throw velomobiles or e-bikes into the mix. In fact, e-bikes are one thing which has the potential to revolutionize urban transport, particularly with the proper infrastructure.

  • Bolwerk

    (Now that I have a PDF viewer again.) That document doesn’t support anything you’re claiming. What are riders on each route doing? What’s the turnover? What is the average length of time people ride? The cost per rider is being treated the same whether they ride a block or ten miles.

    You can’t possibly know what you’re claiming without knowing the cost per passenger-mile and actually doing an alternatives analysis of some sort.

    And your assumptions about rail capital costs are just groundless. Think about what it would cost to put buses in subterranean caverns deep under Manhattan, and you know why the comparison is silly.

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