Commute Times in Weiner Land Lag as Bus Ridership Booms

commute1.jpgAverage commute times, in minutes, according to the US Census Bureau

A study hitting the papers this week says the middle class is fleeing New York City, in part because of long commute times faced by residents of boroughs outside Manhattan.

The study, from the Manhattan-based Center for an Urban Future, examines a number of factors that are driving away the city’s middle class. Many New Yorkers, for example, endure commutes that are among the longest in the US. Like commuters from St. Albans, Queens, who spend 51.7 minutes during an average trip to work — nearly twice the national average of 25.5 minutes. (See page 28 of this PDF.)

Meanwhile, more and more "outer borough" New Yorkers are relying on the bus.

Between 1998 and 2006, 81 percent of the increase in bus ridership across the city occurred outside of Manhattan. The number of people in Manhattan riding city buses rose by 11 percent, but this was far less than the increase in Queens (24 percent), Staten Island (23 percent), Brooklyn (22 percent) and the Bronx (18 percent).

This should be a wake-up call to electeds, including mayoral aspirant Bill Thompson, who continue to dismiss viable transit-funding proposals like congestion pricing and bridge tolls, which will also clear traffic and speed commutes. While pandering to the motoring minority makes for sure-fire headlines, the Ravitch plan, now set to be voted up or down by state lawmakers in the coming weeks, would boost bus service even before proposed tolls on East and Harlem River bridges take effect. This is exactly what working class New Yorkers need.

  • Larry Littlefield

    As I’ve discussed on other forums, the data would yield a far different picture if (as is possible) compiled by place of work rather than place of residence.

    One would find that the longest trip times are TO Manhattan, which has the highest wages in the U.S., rather than FROM any particular place. People are willing to endure longer commutes to get those wages, even if they live farther away.

    Different interests have used the data by place of work to argue for disinvestment in transit in more roads, because transit trips take longer on average and thus (in this view) provide a lower quality of life. But of course you can’t drive to Manhattan, thus making the point moot.

    Unless you have a placard.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Different interests have used the data by place of work to argue for disinvestment in transit in more roads).

    They’ve used the data by place of residence, I meant to day.

  • J. Mork

    My commute may be above average at 45 minutes each way, but unlike most commuters in the U.S. it’s time I can spend productively by reading.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Its an excellent point Bro. Littlefield makes. And I think it gets to the heart of the demographic with one more slice of the onion. Much of the opposition to congestion pricing in Weinerland (or is it Weprinland?) comes from those who depend entirely on cars for their work/commutes but do not commute to Manhattan to do that working. I assume (and I’d love to be refuted here by someone who uses the computer research tools better than I) that there are many more people in Weiner/Weprinland commuting by cars to destinations inaccessible efficiently by public transit (reverse commutes to Long Island, cross commutes to Jersey or Westchester) than there are actual auto commuters to the Golden Mountain in Manhattan. These people pay lots of tolls on the TBTA without getting much of the benefit of the MTA subsidies derived therefrom. So the political math gets a little heavy at that point. If 5% commute to Manhattan by car and 20/30% commute to LI or NJ by car then you get to a total of 35% or so that depend on their car for commute from Weiner/Weprinland to somewhere that hires them.

    That Long Island politicians continue to oppose the LIRR Mainline Third Track project totally fucks this constituency out of a viable transit future (as dim as that future might be). The plastic tax and land use fence the suburbs have constructed around NYC continues to obstruct the construction of a viable political constituency for metropolitan transportation (MTA?).

  • Larry Littlefield

    “These people pay lots of tolls on the TBTA without getting much of the benefit of the MTA subsidies derived therefrom.”

    Right. One of the possibilities, proposed by many, was to use some of the additional revenues the MTA would get by tolling all the crossings to Manhattan (including those at existing toll crossings, which people would no longer avoid), to reduce tolls at other crossings such as the Verranzano and Rockaway bridges.

    The idea is that people traveling between the boroughs are unlikely to have a convenient transit option. A more progressive alternative might have reduced those non-Manhattan tolls only for HOVs and trucks, to encourage carpooling.

    The issue of benefit has come up with the proposed payroll tax. Residents of and businesses in outer MTA counties like Dutchess don’t get as much transit service from the MTA as NYC, and thus object to paying an equal tax, an objection that Brodsky has raised (he wants NYC targeted for more pain). Of course given the high average subsidy level out there, they might be getting their tax money back and then some (like Staten Island), but the MTA studiously avoids compiling and publishing data that way.

  • J. Mork

    The TSTC Tolls fact sheets don’t break it down by political district ( But the congestion pricing ones do.

    In Weiner’s district ( 64% of commuters commute outside of the “congestion zone”. Only 5% drive alone to the zone.

    In Weprin’s district ( 74.5 commute outside of the congestion zone. 6% of commuters drive alone into the zone.

    (Unfortunately, TSTC doesn’t give the breakdown by mode outside of the zone.)

  • J. Mork

    Too many URLs? Can someone rescue comment-62704 from the trash heap? Thx.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I don’t know that those numbers are absolutely necessary to draw safe and accurate conclusions. Those (previously) two-fare zones were the big beneficiaries of the Pataki MTA, the same MTA that began borrowing so heavy so the state could fund relatively modest tax cut programs and created the present budget deficit tsunami at MTA. The politicians from those neighborhoods seem to have forgotten the two-fare zone, no good deed goes unpunished, and don’t seem to understand the budget effects of having one fare city-wide. As far as farebox recovery ratio it is Manhattan that is underserved by the MTA.

    The real service the MTA provides is a scapegoat for outerborough Manhattan-envy that Weprin and Weiner can use to rise to whatever level political gravity will take them without their provision of a great metropolitan development strategy. I guess all politics is local after all.

  • Interesting points Larry and Machiavelli!

    I find it pretty intriguing that there was a proposal to use congestion revenues to lower outer borough bridges that don’t connect to Manhattan.

    Personally, I don’t think that would be a good idea. Just as any form of congestion pricing would discourage driving and increase transit options in Manhattan, this particular addition would encourage dependence on cars for those outer borough residents who don’t regularly go into Manhattan, and drive them away from more urban future development.

    If anything, I would like to see congestion revenues biased towards transit that doesn’t even touch Manhattan – moving more towards a web of transit rather than a hub and spoke design. We need more incentives not to drive for other trips within the outer boroughs more than we need incentives not to drive into Manhattan.

    Plus, while I’m not as well versed in the politics of this situation, I would think outer borough politicians would be more likely to support a plan with this sort of bias.

  • Rhywun

    Bus ridership is exploding because nobody can afford to live in Manhattan any more, and many people can’t afford to live in those parts of the outer boroughs that are served by subway.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I think part of your argument runs into elasticity of demand and marginal revenue issues on the outer borough crossings Charley. But really inside the TBTA it is a question of equity, some bridge crossings you pay a toll and some are “free” (like lunch I guess). By spreading the pain to the free crossers now the MTA will have to rely less heavily on the TBTA bridges for future revenues. It is also a question of politics, holding Staten Island in the yes column by suggesting less pressure on future Verrezano tolls. It should be noted that didn’t help congestion pricing on the rock. The Staten Islands still opposed it even though they would have gotten a free ride after deducting their VZ crossing charges. Go figure.

  • Hah, the rock.

    True, it is partially wishful thinking to expect some of these connections (I would probably be the only person on a bus from the East Bronx to Bayside!). You obviously can’t say “everywhere should be connected with everywhere else” without realizing that it’s a huge waste to have a bus with 2 people on it going from Staten Island to Southern Brooklyn.

    You’re also right about your political analysis of the situation. It only depresses me when I see completely rational decisions ruined by political whims…

    I could talk forever about my thoughts on this, but in short, I think that congestion pricing has a tendency towards an “insiders vs outsiders” mentality, when it shouldn’t! If anything, lowering prices on outer borough to outer borough crossings increases this mentality. Most people see “yay cheap bridges” or “maybe this will appease them”, I see “Manhattan is worthy of incentives towards urban development and the outer boroughs aren’t”.

    While you still have to be smart about what sort of transit you’re investing in, I think that we should orient the policy as being FOR outer borough residents. Sure, it’s nice that congestion is being reduced in Manhattan and we’re getting a second ave subway, but focus on what the GOAL of the plan is for the outer boroughs.

    I’m sure there are particular political situations that would make this impossible… But in general I would think that in a bargaining situation, saying something like “would you support this if we expanded the 7 train past Flushing instead of on the West Side” would gather the more support than offering toll concessions.

  • Ian Turner


    The reality is that congestion pricing reduces traffic congestion in the boroughs as well as in Manhattan, because people drive through the boroughs to get to the city. Indeed, most people who drive to Manhattan will experience the majority of their vehicle miles outside Manhattan, since Manhattan is so small. I live not far from the Queens end of the Queensborough bridge. The air quality in my neighborhood is in the bottom decile nationwide, and I’m confident that traffic from this bridge is a principal cause of this tragedy.

    In short, I believe that the reason congestion pricing failed has a lot more to do with horse trading and politicans’ empathy for drivers than with rensponsible policy development.

  • Ian,

    When I said that we shouldn’t focus so much on the fact that congestion pricing reduces congestion in Manhattan, I didn’t mean to imply that congestion isn’t reduced elsewhere. It definitely is! and it definitely is a major plus, I didn’t mean to downplay that.

    I also agree that politics play a huge part in why sensible policies like this don’t get passed.

    In general, I like thinking of congestion pricing as being first and foremost a policy to help fund transit that happens to be good for the environment, rather than an environmental policy that happens to help fund transit. Between us that’s just two different ways of looking at the same thing, but if you’re trying to hype up a policy like this towards the outer boroughs, I think it pays to focus on the transit improvements rather than the environmental improvements.

    If you focus on the environmental improvements, it can easily degrade into someone in the outer boroughs thinking that they’re footing the bill to provide cleaner air for everyone. Of course I realize that most of the drivers are coming from the burbs, but this is where the “us vs them” mentality starts, and it’s hard to overcome that.

    If you focus on actual transit improvements that the outer boroughs would be receiving, then you avoid that initial division.

    Like I mentioned earlier, I would take it a step further. If after doing a study of what transit investment is needed, you find out that you need a certain amount of transit expansion in Manhattan, and a certain amount of expansion in the outer boroughs, you then skew the results in favor of the outer boroughs. Or, keep the LINES that you’re adding the same, and maybe change the type of service you’re adding. For example: instead of adding subways to Manhattan and express buses to the outer boroughs, add subways to the outer boroughs and express buses to Manhattan.


To Stay Connected to Jobs, New Yorkers Need Better Bus Service

Over the last decades, the economic geography of New York City has begun to shift. While Midtown and Lower Manhattan remain job centers without peer, more and more of the city’s jobs are located outside of the central business districts. As employment shifts into the other boroughs, however, the transit system hasn’t shifted with it. […]