The Times is a Changin’

A chart illustrating the number who commute by auto to the Central Business District from Bruce Schaller’s study for the Manhattan Institute, Battling Traffic: What New Yorkers Think About Road Pricing.

A great story on New York City traffic congestion, In Traffic’s Jam, Who’s Driving May Be Surprising, ran on the front page of the New York Times this morning. William Neuman’s article digs in to the question of who drives in New York City and why. Regulars will recall that we highlighted this very same story here on Streetsblog on December 8

neuman.jpgNeuman’s story is particularly well-framed (that’s him at right interviewing Transportation Alternatives’ Graham Beck during a City Hall press conference in November). It explodes the myth that most of the cars on New York City’s streets belong to suburban drivers.

By highlighting Bruce Schaller’s findings that "more than half the drivers who crowd into Manhattan each workday come from the five boroughs" and "35 percent of government workers drive to work" thanks to free parking, the story makes it clear that New York City’s traffic congestion problem is, largely, the city’s problem — not the state’s, not the surrounding suburbs’. Today’s story puts the responsibility to fix this problem squarely in the lap of New York City’s Mayor.

An excerpt:

Census data show that more city residents than suburbanites drive to work in Manhattan every day, according to Mr. Schaller. He estimated that 263,000 people in 19 counties in and around New York City drive regularly to jobs in Manhattan below 60th Street. Of those, 53 percent, or 141,000, live in the five boroughs, Mr. Schaller said. The greatest numbers are from Queens, with 51,300, and Brooklyn, with 33,400. About 23,900 auto commuters live in Manhattan, while 17,400 are from the Bronx and 15,200 from Staten Island. The suburban area with the most auto commuters to Manhattan is Nassau County, with 22,091 people driving to work in the borough, followed by Bergen County, with 19,975.

When plotted on a map, the data make a striking picture, showing that some of the densest concentrations of auto commuters are from the outer fringes of Queens and Brooklyn, where access to subways is limited.

A study conducted last year for the Partnership for New York City, a business group, cited 2000 census data that showed about 35 percent of government workers in Manhattan drive to work, compared with 14 percent for those who work in finance. Kathryn S. Wylde, the president of the group, said that many city workers drive because they can park at no charge using parking placards obtained through their agencies.

  • AD

    I think the issue of traffic congestion is making its way independently into the newsroom and the editorial pages. The two departments function entirely separately so as to ensure that the opinions expressed on the editorial pages don’t corrupt or otherwise contaminate the news coverage. Reporters and editorial writers work on different floors and have little to no contact in the day-to-day course of affairs. It’s one of the hallmarks of modern journalism that news reporters don’t be perceived as "biased." Thus, different sets of people are taking note of the problem for entirely different reasons. This doesn’t take anything away from your post. Rather, it reinforces just how pervasive the problem is.

  • Steve

    One of my favorite parts of the article:

    “John Lane, 26, a tattoo artist who lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, typically waits until after 11 a.m. to drive his 1963 Buick Skylark to work at Cutting Edge Body Arts in the West Village.

    His routine allows him to skip the morning rush and arrive just as street-cleaning restrictions expire, so it is easy to park. He said his half-hour trip would take about the same time on the subway, but he prefers his car. “I like to be in my own environment,” Mr. Lane said.”

    *WHOSE* environment do you think your car is located in? (And I wonder what kind and amount of emissions a 1963 Skylark spews?)

  • MD

    Stunning to see that far more commuters drive in from elsewhere in Manhattan than either the Bronx or Staten Island.

  • CU

    Putting tolls on all the East River crossings that are currently free would help to reduce congestion in Manhattan. A portion of the revenue could be devoted to improving public transportation. TA’s page on this is here (although it looks like it hasn’t been updated since 2003). I was surprised this idea wasn’t mentioned in the article.

  • I almost choked on my bagel this morning when the paper exploded my myth that commuters to Manhattan are from the suburbs by pointing out that they’re actually from the outer fringes of Queens, while a mere 47 percent come from the REAL suburbs. Crazy!

    (But yeah I guess it’s a good sign that this lame trend piece is about traffic.)

  • mfs

    It struck me that no one in the piece had a really good reason to drive into Manhattan. Even the guy who lives in NJ and works in Brooklyn & Queens drove through MN on the way to work, but went home via the Verazzano bridge.

  • mfs: here’s a hint — no toll leaving Manhattan to Jersey, compared to a double toll leaving via the Verrazano.

    Coming back, the V. is free.

  • MD

    Does anyone know if these counts are private autos only or does the Manhattan number include those cabbing it from uptown?

  • d

    I was actually wondering the same thing as MD. Do these figures include livery cabs or private car companies that drive so many of the city’s executive class from the Upper East Side to Wall Street?

  • P

    So, can anyone whip out some quick research to compare the average income levels of the areas whose residents are in the quintile least likely to drive compared to the areas most likely to drive.

    It looks like we’ve got the South Bronx, East Harlem, and Bed Stuy in the first catagory while the UES, South Shore of SI, and Eastern Queens in the quintile mostly to drive. Just as a ballpark figure I’d estimate the average incomes of those two areas as $25K v. $75K.

    I’d say these maps show the populist argument against congestion pricing to be quite a farce.

    (I think we have M8, SI3, Q7, and Q13 as the Community Districts driving the most and BK 3,4,8,9,16, BX 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, and M9 and M11 as the Community Districts driving the least. Unfortunately I can’t find income levels for the CD’s)


    Streetsblog, a site that is an advocate for “livable streets,” has some commentary on the article, although it is off the mark in discussing its origin. The idea didn’t come from anyone on the paper’s editorial board, which oversees the opinion section. (There’s a firewall between the opinion staff and the newsroom. See this Readers’ Guide about news and opinion in the paper. The public editor also addressed the subject.)

    Like many ideas in the metro pages of the paper (the New York/Region section of the Web site), this idea started with the reporter, William Neuman, who covers transportation. Willie noticed some new transit and census data and was looking for an interesting way to present it to readers. (Another hook is that the Bloomberg administration is undertaking a long-term planning process to address transportation and other city issues). The reporter brainstormed with the city editor, Wendell Jamieson, and then they pitched it to the newsroom editors who decide the page one line-up.

    We’ll leave the opinions and policy pronouncements to the editorial page, Streetsblog and — if you care to weigh in below — readers of the Empire Zone.

  • I’d also like to know if this data includes taxis. I know the Census data on “Commute to work” by auto only includes “private automobile” while taxi is (strangely for NYC)included in the “public transportation” section if I remember correctly.

    One thing about a lot of reporters covering local issues for the major papers that I have found is that many of them live in Brooklyn and Queens, NOT Manhattan. Since they don’t necessarily have a straight commute back and forth to any one location, many of them use their own cars or taxis to get around in the outerboroughs to different areas.

  • It’s unlikely the data include taxis, or private care service, with one caveat: how to count car sevice drivers who take the car home?

    I live on the LES, where a large number of car owners appear to be working class, both the car services guys, some who do reverse commuting (was just talking to a guy who lives in Baruch Houses and commutes to Jamaica each day) and/or working locally, based on the patterns of parking in the morning.

    The ‘rich UES drivers’ is somewhat of a red herring, since there simply aren’t that many of them. Larger apartements, less density, etc. Driving a car isn’t considered a conveience most of the time, so why would the wealthy demand it for intraborough travel?

    Since city housing is subsized, as is parking (not just because of on street), you probably have a high percentage of car ownership at both ends of the economic spectrum. The biggest shift in car ownership in the city is middle class over the past two decades.

    The data point that was egregiously underreported is the driving to work number for government employees. It should be fairly easy for that to be calculated. The ‘35%’ number is useless on it’s own. If that 35% number translates into over 20% of car trips into Manhattan, then it is a congestion issue that could be addressed immediately, without tolls, DOT or anyone involved.

  • someguy

    Miss Representation – are you serious? I think you truly are misrepresenting your assumptions/intuitions as fact. LES more populated than the UES because of larger apartments? Um, what about the building heights? CB 3 (LES) has 164,400 people as of 2000, while CB 8 has 217,000. Source:
    (P: you could have used this site to check the populations as well)
    Also, because your interactions and observations of your neighbors tell you that some of them drive doesn’t mean that many low-income residents, of the LES or elsewhere, own cars or drive. The fact is that income is directly correlated with vehicle ownership as well as annual mileage in the US in general and in NYC specifically.

    Also, driving a car IS considered a convenience most of the time, what planet are you from? That’s why so many people continue to insist on doing it here and elsewhere, despite their loathing for traffic and, sometimes, supposed concern for the environment or global warming.

    However, I think you make a good point about much subsidized housing including subsidized parking. I don’t know the facts on that and I would be interested to know the parking provisions at NYCHA facilities and the actual car ownership rate among those residents. Also a good point about the proportion of daily vehicles that are government workers as opposed to the statistic about 35% of government employees driving – how many people does this translate into? This I know has been covered, in Bruce Schaller’s report “Necessity or Choice”. I don’t know the #’s off-hand though.

  • Here’s the answer to that:

    Schaller’s analysis of 2000 Census data shows that if government workers commuted by auto at the same rate as their private sector counterparts, 19,200 fewer vehicles would enter Manhattan each day. The parking spaces freed up by these vehicles could generate $46 million annually in parking meter fees.

  • Someguy: 126sf/resident in CB8, and 111sf/resident in CB3, so yes, the LES is more dense. Add to the fact that the likelihood of underreporting is much higher here (containing immigrant communities in Chinatown with illegal housing situations, and populations that are transient, the under-housed/near homeless who aren’t likely counted with relatives they stay with), and the numbers skew even further.

    Do you live in Manhattan? Have a car? Say what you want about regional transit car “convenience” (a fact I likely agree with), I’m speaking specifically about midday, intra-borough travel. It is almost never a convenience on weekdays. There are probably a sizable, but not overwhelming number, of people traveling from one secured (owned/rented) parking location to another each day within Manhattan, but I doubt it is the majority.

    It is certainly incremental, so you can attack it as one part of the problem, but the anecdotal evidence of this neighborhood isn’t without merit. And it is just as much a slice. NYCHA facilities have lots of land area (21,000 spaces in the five boroughs) with the following rate structure:

    “The new annual fee for a NYCHA parking permit/sticker is $75.00 ($65.50 for Seniors and the disabled) for NYCHA residents and $150
    for non-residents. In addition, also effective April 1, monthly recurring charges for reserved spaces will be $20.00 for residents for outdoor parking spaces and $35.00 for residents for indoor spaces; and $35.00 for outdoor parking
    spaces for nonresidents and $75.00 for indoor (not including tax).”

    Note: this is not do demonize ‘the poor’. Given the dispersion of NYCHA facilities and where working class jobs are located, and (as noted by the Times and here) the poor public transit options make car ownership a highly rational choice. And it is not an insignificant factor.

    It’s convenient to create a myth of the SUV drivings UES resident (the obverse of Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare mother) because that presumes we can fix a thorny problem with some cheap moralizing.

    We now have data showing the outer borough public transit improvements would have the biggest impact on car congestion, a point transit advocates have been arguing for years. It’s a big problem with big numbers. Even if you got all 20,000 Manhattan commuters to give up driving, you would only be solving less than 10% of the problem and not changing materially affect auto density (since, presumably, all those cars are housed in Manhattan all the time).

  • P

    Miss R-
    Density aside, isn’t your claim that the UES driver is a myth belied by the map at the top of the page? We don’t have the exact numbers but we can read that the UES has more than 5000 cars driving into the CBD while somewhere between 2500 and 3750 cars from the LES are doing the same.

    Despite price incentives I’m suspect of your idea that the poor own more cars than the middle class. Parking is not the only expense of car ownership. Furthermore, NYCHA residents may have subsidized parking at home but they have to pay the same as other drivers if they commute to Manhattan. (What are the rates of non-CBD housing projects commuting to the CBD, anyway?)

    Parking at public housing projects may be an issue to be considered but I don’t believe it’s low hanging fruit in this discussion in the way that the driving habits of government employees are.

  • I suspect most people who read this article thought, “We shouldn’t have congestion pricing, because it’s not fair to people who live in the outer boroughs.” So my reaction to the article was negative, even though it was very interesting information.

    Number two’s point was to the point: Whose environment do these drivers think they’re in? I used to live on East 63rd Street, and would suffer everyday from the congestion, noise, pollution and general agita that would come across the Queensboro Bridge from drivers who think the subway’s below them.

    For those who live in places in the boroughs where transportation to their jobs isn’t good (and that doesn’t apply to the banker who can take a train, a subway or an express bus, but doesn’t like the attitude of the people on those), did anyone force them to move to those places, as opposed to somewhere with better options? We have the best transportation system in America.

    In the 1950s and 60s, traffic engineers turned many of New York’s streets into auto sewers, with wide, one-way lanes, narrow sidewalks and no on-street parking to buffer the pedestrian from the traffic. 80% of Manhattanites don’t own cars, and most Manhattan workers take public transportaton. It’s time we stop letting a small number of drivers degrade the quality of life for all us.

  • someguy

    Not to beat a dead horse, but Miss R., square feet per person does NOT equate to density. If our city was 2-dimensional (i.e. every building was one story), then it would. But density is the measure of people per land area, not square footage per person, and the two are not the same. Taller buildings can make up for larger apartments.

    At any rate, that’s besides the point of the larger conversation, but it’s worth mentioning.

  • Someguy — true, I was massaging the facts as much as you, but using per sqt foot per resident means that as growth remains constant (much more of the UES is probably built to envelope, though the recent downzoning around here helps), and the gap between vacant land in the two area (near 6% here, 0% there) means we will grow in population per acre and per sq ft (since our median income is lower) over time.

    But to the point at hand: how to fairly redistribute commuting costs? People often talk about distance fares as a option distinct from congestion pricing (mostly because the car lobby is stonger). This would certainly have a counter-intuitive effect. But how about this question? Given ridership, Manhattan has more rail miles per resident, per ride, and no doubt the highest maintenance costs. And the three largest expansion projects in decades are benefitting only here.

    Has there ever been a successful model of density pricing (that is, increasing costs for rides closer to the center) for public transit? It’s simply congestion pricing for people, and adding it to congestion fares (East River tolls) would offset the increase for outer borough residents.

  • This is a great article and an excellent thread. There is no question in my mind that a big part of the congestion problem does stem from government workers being lured into driving into Manhattan by the promise of free parking. Drivers circling blocks looking for legal street parking certainly adds to the traffic problem and when a large number of the available parking spaces get eaten up by the chosen few, the traffic and congestion worsens exponentially. What’s even worse is when they park illegally but still get away with because of a decal, their position or both. Elimate that and traffic & congestion will be greatly reduced.

    Erik Feder
    “The Parking Expert”

  • Heinrich McBean

    Research done a few years ago in the UK found that the people most exposed to the adverse effects of vehicle pollution are drivers (and their passengers) in congested traffic. Now, if NYC can get that message across to drivers and for added effect, charge them a realistic cost for the damage they cause the environment, them maybe those persons may change their attitudes. But before that is implemented, NYC needs to put in place high quality travel options for all its residents. City residents need to travel and smelly subways or congested streets should not be the only options in NYC.


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