Where Do Manhattan Auto Commuters Come From?

Bruce Schaller’s studies continue to give New York City policymakers a much more detailed idea of who commutes into Manhattan’s Central Business District each day, where they came from and what they are doing once they get there (PDF file). 

Towards that end, his new Manhattan Institute study, Battling Traffic: What New Yorkers Think About Road Pricing, offers the two maps below. The maps show the number of auto commuters and the percentage of auto commuters who drive into Manhattan’s Central Business District from specific census tracts.  

So, for example, check out the Upper East Side. It is responsible for 5,000+ auto commuters into the Manhattan CBD each day, yet the vast majority of those car commuters’ neighbors — 85 percent or more — find a way to get to work without a car. In other words, the Upper East Side may be a place that is ripe for mode shift. It could be a place where one would expect to find a significant number of commuters who could be moved out of cars and onto transit, bike, ferry or foot if the proper services and incentives were offered (Though, with all of those wealthy people and black limos on the UES, the proper incentive might be helicopter service).   

Number Who Commute by Auto to the Central Business District nyc_auto_commuter_numb.jpg

Percent Who Commute by Auto to the Central Business Districtnyc_auto_commuter_pct.jpg

  • Hey, quit taking pot shots at my neighborhood! The Upper East Side, contrary to popular belief, is quite diverse in income levels, with some of the highest incomes in the country near Central Park to a housing project and lots of 5 story walk-ups and “just out of college” folks experiencing NYC for the first time. Many folks live a half mile or more from the (extremely over crowded) Lexington Ave subway line. I suspect most of those auto trips are by taxi or car service. Bus service is slow and unreliable, especially during the morning commute. That said, there are lots of opportunities for mode switching in our densely packed urban environment.

    My group, Upper Green Side is currently conducting a transportation survey that will conclude at the end of this year. We have some questions about mode switching. When we have the results, I will post them here.

  • Kurt

    It would be interesting to see the mass-transit (subway, commuter train) lines superimposed on these maps.

  • alex

    It also looks like the Verrazano Bridge is vastly underpriced. Why not improve the parking situation near the Staten Island Ferry and hike the prices to cross the Verrazano? And not to pick on S.I. folks, I think the map shows that all bridges and tunnels (but especially the NJ and SI connectors) need to be optimally priced. The maps certainly seem to show that the commuting “markets” of NJ and SI can bear higher costs. Additionally, it might be reasonable to allow vehicles above a certain weight, carrying goods (food, electronics, raw materials) to pass through at their current fare – such that tranportation costs are less likely to be passed onto consumers in NYC.

  • Clarence

    It would seem if the Mayor and his staff really examine these maps it would make the case for congestition pricing a no-brainer.

  • someguy

    Some points to consider in response to some of the above comments:
    1. If you are going to raise the fees for Staten Island residents, you HAVE to provide better transit alternatives throughout the island
    2. This doesn’t go for NJ so much because A) they have more suburban jobs in NJ than Staten Island, and B) they are not a part of the city, so they can’t really block it anyway
    3. Alex, we *should* be discouraging truck freight – but we can’t do that until there are alternatives like rail and boat, which will take forever. So yes, in the short term, like you said, we don’t want to raise business/retail costs. But in the long-term we must focus on reducing our reliance on truck freight, for reasons of infrastructure (18-wheelers exert about 2,000 times more damage on a road than a regular car), environment (air pollution and relative energy efficiency), and economy (what if gas prices continue to increase?)

  • Steve

    1. Don’t Staten Island Residents get a waiver on Verrazano bridge tolls?
    2. Mode shifts for the very wealthy (sorry Glenn, UES=Rich) are extremely hard since they can a.) afford additional expenses b.) influence or prevent a policy change.

    While the UES may have better options for non-auto commutes, it is always easier and probably more productive to hit the middle and lower-class commuters with tolls on bridges, higher parking fees, etc. They can’t absorb the higher costs, and can’t do as much to prevent such policies. This isn’t an ideal or even fair condition, but I think it is realistic.

  • crzwdjk

    The Upper East Side doesn’t really have good alternatives though. There is just one subway line, and it is very crowded, in an area originally served by three rapid transit lines. The busiest bus line in the city, the M15 runs through the Upper East Side, and Third/Lexington have plenty of buses as well. You can’t get mode shifts if the other mode is already packed full of riders with no room for new ones.

  • Jack

    Am I the only one here who’s noticing the blood-red color of Bergen County on BOTH of these maps? Variable tolls on the Bridges and Tunnels will help…couldn’t a Congestion Charging zone also be variably priced? Could this help diffuse criticism and act as a bargaining/compromise tool?

  • Park Ave, Madison and Fifth Ave are very rich. But that’s silk stocking territory. And the vast majority of them do not drive to work. The rest is relatively similar to other parts of Manhattan. Some of the lowest rents in Manhattan south of 96th street are in older rent stabilized walk-ups between Third Ave and York.

    And based on census data, we have one of the greenest transportation profiles in the city. 63% of folks take mass transit to work. Almost 20% WALK to work and another 6% work from home (talk about green!). Less than 10% drive solo and only a few percent carpool.

  • Steve

    I agree with Glenn that the Upper East Side is more diverse than most think (and I think I smell some irony in Steve’s flip “UES=Rich” formulation). The fact is that the UES is so un-hip, and has so much rental housing stock, that it is actually cheaper to find a place to live there than in many other, hipper Manhattan neighborhoods. Moreover, the UES has a huge number of long-term residents in low-cost luxury and not-so-luxury housing thanks to rent stabilization, rent control, and non-eviction coop conversions. All you need to do is take a ride down Park Avenue at street cleaning time and you will see lots of UES residents who apparently believe that hours spent sitting in a car is not more valuable than the cost of a private garage.

    There are tens of thousands of people on the UES who would switch to bicycle or mass transit, if only the infrastructure/services were better (I can see them now, bicyling to Williamsburg and the LES and overcome their hipness deficit). The West Side Greenway has gotten hundreds or perhaps thousands from the UWS onto their bikes, but the East Side Greenway is a joke. Here’s just one of the several obstacles on the East Side Greenway that force many riders to dismount, and which certainly rule out the possibility of two-way traffic (http://nyc.mybikelane.com/post/index/127).

    Plus, the East Side Greenways ends with a long walk up a narrow wooden ramp where pedestrians will cuss you if you don’t dismount, and then you find yourself at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge, #1 kill zone for bicyclists in Manhattan ( http://www.streetsblog.org/2006/11/06/queensboro-bridge-area-safety-under-scrutiny/).

    I will admit that the UES includes the wealthiest and most powerful of New Yorkers, who are ready (and expect) to buy their way out of any modal change imposed by government. Some of these folks bicycle recreationally in Central Park, but for most, the bike is permanently parked out on Long Island. I would expect to see this crew, via Carnegie Hill Neighbors or some like organization, up in arms if DOT tries to convert the 90th-91st Street Class III bike paths on the UES to Class II paths, they way they have done on the UWS. I bet DOT won’t even try it.

    As long as the East Side Greenway remains at its current length and state of disrepair, and there are no Class II lanes south of Harlem connecting it with the rest of the city’s bike lane network, there is a huge obstacle to increasing bike ridership on the UES. Even going through Central Park to access the West Side bike path is burdensome, because (as has been discussed on this site before) the lanes on the transverse roads are extremely narrow and full of alternatively speeding or bumper-to-bumper motorists, making it both dangerous to “ride big” and easy to get completely stuck in traffic. As for the pedestrian paths, you stand a much greater chance as a bicyclist on a pedestrian pathway in Central Park of being ordered off by a pedestrian than you do as a motorist parking or traveling in a bike lane of being ordered off by a bicylist (a lesson for bicyclists here about speaking up!).

  • brent

    Am I the only one who finds it outrageous that 50-100% of the people who commute to NY by auto, the same people who are benefitting most from subsidized roads and parking, are paying taxes in Jersey!!!

  • Rob

    In all fairness to the people in Bergen County they really should have better transit options. For one thing the Passic Valley line, Bergen County Line and Main Line should all come directly into New York, currently none of them do.

    Secondly if I understand correctly the Passic Valley line has TERRIBLE service with just 8 trains running each weekday and none at all on weekends. The line I take to my parents house in Monmouth County has 30 trains on a weekday.
    It looks like an increase in service is planned

    The “Hudson-Bergen Light Rail” as far as I can tell never enters Bergen County.

  • Rob

    Futhermore after a little bit of research it seems to me that NJT “gets it” a little bit more then the MTA. After looking at both agencies’ plans for the future here is what I see.

    -THE Tunnel http://www.accesstotheregionscore.com/ *Double the number of trains entering Manhattan
    *New 34th St. Station
    *Seacaucus loop will allow Begen County, Main and Passiac Valley Lines to Enter NYC Directly
    -New Rail Lines to growing suburban areas
    -Bike Program

    The MTA has the following projects underway
    -7 Train Extension
    -2nd Avenue Subway
    -Fulton St. Junction
    -South Ferry Terminal
    -East Side Access

    While all of these are good the only project that seems likely to really take cars of the streets is East Side access, furthermore it seems the MTA has arcane rules regarding bikes
    http://mta.info/mnr/html/getaways/bikerule.htm which actually require you to get a permit!

  • Rob

    I also think it’s time to re-introduce/Expand ferry service to Bergen county it existed in the 1900’s

  • AD

    I’m not sure when the stats used to create these maps were collected, but a change in commuting patterns is underway in north Jersey where all that red is.

    The Secaucus Junction station has given rail commuters on the Bergen County and Main Lines a transfer directly into Penn Station, whereas before they had no choice but to go to Hoboken and transfer to the PATH if they wanted to go to Manhattan.

    It’s still a two-seat ride, but it’s a more comfortable two seats, and from what I understand it is having an impact at reducing the share of auto commuters from there.

  • Mike

    I agree with Kurt about wanting to see mass transit lines superimposed on this map. My quick impression of the Queens neighborhoods colored red is that they are fairly well served by LIRR.

  • Andrew Cusack

    The car numbers look pretty high up in Rockland and that side of the Hudson. Why not restore passenger service on the West Shore line? Its currently only used for freight but is completely serviceable.

  • Pete

    One question would be how did they come up with these numbers? are taxis, car service included- which would explain over 5000 from UES.
    Just because suburban area may have train service doesn’t mean they have parking for all the commuter autos at stations. Many people I know taking trains have to leave early to get parking spaces.
    Improving mass transit will get more people out of cars more than tolls. Slow crawling subway service needs the improvement.
    Would also like to add that most traffic congestion (in my view) is not ‘commuter’ cars going to midtown – but is commercial vehicles, taxis and limos driving around all day thru area. I think the commuter traffic is overblown.

  • I’m someone can find me a geographically correct map that shows all the subway and commuter rail lines I will take a crack at it.

  • Okay — found one.

    I’m no pro, but this is pretty close:


  • Rob

    Awesome overlay Steveo I did something similar in Google Eart but was unsure of how exactly to post it. What that overlay makes me ask is “What the hell is wrong with the Port Washington line” and if nothing then what can be done to get more people to use it.

  • Rob

    After looking at the Port Washington Line in google earth it looks like nearly all of the stations lack any sort of parking. I would propose building a new express-intermodal station over the Clearview Expressway/295 with large parking facilities as well as bus service into nearby communities. The only problem with that is it would require the use of eminent domain and would probably face fierce NIMBY opposition. Another alternative would be a similar station near the nexus of 25A(Northern Boulevard)the Cross Island Expressway and 495 there is lots of open land around here so no eminent domain should be neccessary however the land looks to be wetlands which would require enviormental waivers.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Ooh, no, Rob, don’t touch Alley Pond Park!

    There are actually some fairly large parking areas along the Port Washington line, but not enough for demand. Rather than park-and-ride, I think increased bus service is the way to go, as well as easy bus-train transfers. For example, just getting from the Bayside, Douglaston and Little Neck stations to the buses along Northern Boulevard is a significant walk.

    Also pedestrian improvements; I walked near the Plandome station this summer, and it was not pleasant.

    Finally, density: it’s no coincidence that the areas out in Eastern Queens near the Port Washington line are ground zero for Tony Avella and his campaign against “overdevelopment,” which has been reported almost completely uncritically in the press. The campaign comes down to one thing: preserving car-oriented sprawl.

  • Rob

    I’m not sure if we are talking about the same area or not, the area I’m referencing is labeled CROCHERON PARK on Google Earth. For a look at this area check out this link

    I think something like metropark might workhttp://static.flickr.com/140/317908466_34ca37eed6_o.jpg

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Okay, Rob, I see which part you mean. It may not strictly be considered Alley Pond Park, and I’m not sure what kind of recreation goes on there. Most of Crocheron Park proper is several blocks north of there. Here’s the Google Maps URL:


    My main point is that feasible as this may be, a park-and-ride would only encourage people to drive to and from the station. Maybe this would take some cars off the streets of Manhattan, but it wouldn’t be worth taking the wetlands.

    When the LIRR East Side Access project is finished, I think there will be the possibility of increasing peak frequency on the Port Washington line. Off-peak frequency increases would help as well. And of course, pedestrian improvements along the streets in the area.

    Also, yeah: Bergen County. Double-tracking the Pascack Valley line and returning passenger service to the Northern Branch and/or Suzie-Q would be a big improvement. Here’s a statement about Northern Branch dickerings that’s unfortunately still true even though it’s two years old:


  • Sam

    The real problems with the LIRR are (1) the ticket machines and (2) the express trains. Once I was going from Penn Station to Woodside, and ended up in Great Neck, because it was an express. On that same day, another train (probably a local) was leaving in 2 minutes, and there was a long line for the ticket machine and there were way too many prompts. It should work like:

    1. pick a language (there would be just buttons saying “English”, “Espanol”, etc.

    2. select destination, and touch button if where you’re going from isn’t Penn Station (then select station you’re coming from if it’s not Penn Station)

    3. it displays your round-trip fare (and if your stop is “express”, “local”, or “really local”), and there are buttons for “one-way” and “other options”, and you put in the money

    Then, make more ticket machines. This would probably involve finding some way to make them cheaper. Maybe use Linux.

    Then, make the displays for the next train say if it’s “express”, “local”, or “very local”. “Express” is always stopping there (e.g. Jamaica). “Local” is usually stopping there (e.g. Flushing). “Very local” is EVERY stop (e.g. Long Island City). Those flashing “*”s probably meant it was express, in retrospect, but how are you supposed to guess that before the train ends up not go to your stop?

    Also, if the ticket collectors actually did their job, the MTA might be making enough money to pay for this. I had a round-trip ticket from Penn Station to Woodside that is half-used, but it was not used at all if you asked the MTA, because nobody collected it on the way from Woodside to Penn Station.

    Also, why not make signs that show the next trains just on specific branches, so you’ll know how long you’ll have to wait for the next Port Washington train before it appears on the main next train list.

    It’s because the trains aren’t scheduled as frequently on the Port Washington branch that these problems especially show there. On an average day, I can see two trains scheduled for some other place and zero trains scheduled for Port Washington, until Port Washington finally appears on the next train list. If they removed the “West Side Yard” destination, then more actual trains could be shown, including those to Port Washington.


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