What If Everyone Drove to Work?

fruminmap_copy.jpgAmount of space that would be needed for cars if subway-riding New Yorkers thought like, say, a certain assemblyman from Westchester.

Sure, knocking the MTA is a favorite local past time, particularly for the politicians and press who are practically guaranteed a "Hallelujah!" chorus for every barb (today’s scandal: fat cat transit workers poised to rake in cost-of-living allowance!!). But despite the MTA’s problems, as Michael Frumin points out on his Frumination blog, the city’s streets and highways can’t hold a candle to the subways when it comes to moving commuters into and out of Manhattan’s Central Business District.

Parsing data derived from 2008 subway passenger counts and the NYMTC 2007 Hub Bound Report [PDF], Frumin writes:

Just to get warmed up, chew on this — from 8:00AM to 8:59 AM on an average Fall day in 2007 the NYC Subway carried 388,802 passengers into the CBD on 370 trains over 22 tracks. In other words, a train carrying 1,050 people crossed into the CBD every 6 seconds. Breathtaking if you ask me.

Over this same period, the average number of passengers in a vehicle
crossing any of the East River crossings was 1.20. This means that, lacking the subway, we would need to move 324,000 additional vehicles into the CBD (never mind where they would all park).

At best, it would take 167 inbound lanes, or 84 copies of the Queens Midtown Tunnel, to carry what the NYC Subway carries
over 22 inbound tracks through 12 tunnels and 2 (partial) bridges. At
worst, 200 new copies of 5th Avenue. Somewhere in the middle would be
67 West Side Highways or 76 Brooklyn Bridges. And this neglects the
Long Island Railroad, Metro North, NJ Transit, and PATH systems entirely.

Take a gander at the map above to get an idea of the real estate that would be taken up by all those cars. Think such a proposition would lead John Liu to base his stances on congestion pricing and bridge tolls on principle, rather than wind direction? Could Deborah Glick overlook her personal hatred for the billionaire mayor long enough to save her constituents from carmaggedon? Would the prospect of seeing his district literally transformed into a parking lot prompt Sheldon Silver to finally take an unequivocal stand favoring transit over car commuting?

Right. Probably not.

  • Pave the East River

    The MTA is a total waste of money. Here’s a better idea. Let’s dam the East River at Hell Gate and the Battery and build a load of parking and a couple dozen Walmarts and Costcos. That would solve the parking problem in Western Queens,Brooklyn and the Lower East Side and would give New Yorkers the retail choices they have been so sadly deprived of. The new sales taxes and hundreds of thousands of new retail jobs would pay for the whole reclamation project. It couldn’t possibly cost more than the Second Avenue subway.

  • But where would I park my submarine?

  • Boris

    The map reminds me of downtown Dallas. Scary place.

  • aBuzz

    Yes fine, we “need” the MTA, but that doesn’t give it a license to cut service and increase fees for no reason. Why not at least make them update an extremely out of date and 100 year old signal-stop system for train operation? How about basic people skill training for its employees who can only yell at and bully customers? How about them paying for security guards or trained professionals who can prevent muggings or even basic shoving/pushing/assault that happens on crowded trains? How about making them accountable for train service that is down every single weekend with no results when the supposed “construction” is done? As far I’m concerned the MTA is a bloated rotting whale carcass that needs to wash off the shore so something productive can take it’s place.

  • J

    Let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of people that travel into Manhattan on buses each day. The Lincoln Tunnel express bus lane carries 62,000 people into the city during the 4 hours it operates each day. The Staten Island and other ferries also contribute. Oh yeah, and 30,000 bikers.

  • Boris


    If you prefer to live in a place where they “make” you do things, move to China. Here our politicians are essentially unaccountable and the public too fickle to accept real change.

    Every problem you mention begins and ends with those who control the MTA, which is by and large the NYS legislature. There is zero reason to gripe about the MTA unless you address your concerns to your favorite politician.

  • A good illustration of how much more important it is to consider numbers of PERSONS transported than numbers of vehicles.

  • Nicole Gelinas

    The MTA takes a disproportionate share of bashing, but calling three prospective years of 4 percent annual raises a “cost of living allowance,” plus a possible rollback of health-benefit costs for union members, just distorts matters further.

    The plain fact is that for the past year, inflation — upon which “cost of living” allowances are based — has been zero to negative, and it has reached barely half of four percent annually over the past decade.

    Reality is that powerful, politically connected unions receive wages and benefits that nobody else gets anymore, and that the public’s intuitive understanding of this fact hurts support for reasonable transit funding.

    Using mass transit as a battleground for social-justice ideals doesn’t help transit.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Reality is that powerful, politically connected unions receive wages and benefits that nobody else gets anymore, and that the public’s intuitive understanding of this fact hurts support for reasonable transit funding.”

    “Using mass transit as a battleground for social-justice ideals doesn’t help transit.”

    I hate to say it, but you are using a social justice argument.

    In any event, what would happen is that the Manhattan business center will shrink, and the state’s tax base along with it, as the transit system decline. The only countervailing factor would be if public services declined even faster in the rest of the country than in NY.

  • oscarfrye

    well said Nicole

    apparently for some here the MTA & TWU are faultless, and all we need is more money thrown at their greedy hands

  • I’ve admired much of Nicole Gelinas’s commentary on the MTA over the past year, and she’s right that inflation over the past year has been negative. But she overstates her case on historical inflation. The Consumer Price Index increased at an annual average compound rate of 2.8% from 1998 to 2008 — somewhat more than her “barely half of four percent.”

    Her larger point, “Using mass transit as a battleground for social-justice ideals doesn’t help transit.,” is worth discussing. I would be more receptive to it if social and economic justice hadn’t taken so many hits over the past three decades, courtesy of right-wing advocacy mounted by think-tanks such as the Manhattan Institute (though I’ll grant that M.I. is more enlightened than most of the Right).

  • aBuzz may wish to note that the signal system is already being rebuilt — but because the MTA capital plan is chronically funded, this is happening at a glacial pace. The statement that MTA employees bully customers does not conform with what I have observed for the past three decades. Regarding the call for “security guards or trained professionals,” please note that policing the system is the responsibility of the NYPD, not the MTA, and it was Mayor Giuliani who folded the transit cops into the main police department. Not sure what aBuzz means about non-activity during scheduled weekend construction, since again, this doesn’t match my own observations. Perhaps aBuzz just sees what he/she wants to see. Finally, if aBuzz wants to replace the MTA with something else, perhaps a serious and detailed proposal would shed some light on exactly what that means. The MTA is not beyond critique but the MTA bashing that routinely slimes this blog is ultimately unenlightening and, I suspect, anti-transit at its heart.

  • Please. Last week the MTA’s new chief got a 13 percent salary hike, bringing him up to $350,000 a year. And if our elected representatives see fit to remove him, he stands to get a 850,000 golden parachute. According to the government-expenditure transparency site http://www.SeeThroughNY.net, 54 people at MTA make more than $200,000.

    Salary gains by TWU in the last contract averaged 3.5 percent a year over three years — as Charles points out, that makes it a huge 0.7 percent over inflation. Tell me again who the bandits are?

  • Omri

    I think the time and effort of streetsblog community members would be very well spend studying the money going into road projects in New York City to have a better comparison as to just who in this town is getting the sweet deal.

    I say this as a post-Big-Dig Bostonian.

  • Bill

    This is a false hypothesis. New York City would not resemble what we have now if there were “no subway” for all these people. It never would have developed like this because the bottlenecks to Manhattan are too narrow for all those cars. So this is an example of a post-apocalyptic NYC, not an argument for whether the subway is CURRENTLY an alternative to cars, or vice-versa.

  • Why is anti-union sentiment more pronounced in transit than policing or education? We interact with transit daily, we depend on it, we’re frequently disappointed by it. Ultimately we undermine the only transit authority we have because we’re skeptical of its union or its management, depending on the day of the week. But ask New Yorkers what they think about unions in general and you’ll see how little progress M.I. has made on that front. Sorry, people still support uncle Bob’s union. We can try to solve the uneven labor problem, or not, but starving the authority of funding has done nothing to that end. It has simply left us with a decrepit and colossally indebted subway system.

    The cost of the TWU is fixed for all practical purposes; it is large and “politically connected” as Gelinas points out—so, you know—it will be around for a while. We have to take that cost into account and fund transit sufficiently, with the help of use fees and consumption taxes. We have to prioritize transit above some points of our diverse ideologies. There is plenty in this approach for transit advocates of any stripe to appreciate. It will certainly do more than blaming the MTA and calling it a day.

    If the economy get significantly worse, then and only then would I expect to see big NYC unions broken in my lifetime. (I am not saying if I think that is good or bad, just a fact.) But at that point, we can’t go back and build the essential infrastructure that this city needs to thrive, or even survive. We have to build it now, under current constraints, or it doesn’t get built. Griping about the inefficient process is just a distraction, eagerly encouraged by indifferent politicians and others that could give a damn about our public transportation.

  • brooklynbound: “Please. Last week the MTA’s new chief got a 13 percent salary hike, bringing him up to $350,000 a year.”

    Well, since you said please…

    Walder’s $350,000 is less than half of what the CEO of Jetblue gets. And it’s just three or four percent of what the CEO of United gets! Here are the figures for 2007:

    United $10,300,000
    Continental $7,300,000
    Northwest $7,700,000
    US Airways $5,400,000
    American $4,600,000
    AirTran $2,700,000
    Delta $3,700,000
    Alaska $1,400,000
    Southwest $1,300,000
    Jetblue $800,000

    (See source. Thanks to Dan Berkman for doing a variation of this post a few weeks ago.)

  • Doug

    Mark, I’m not sure I see your point. The CEOs of JetBlue, American, Southwest, etc. lead for-profit companies meant to serve their investors. So I’d certainly expect their salaries to be in the millions. The head of the MTA leads a civic organization meant to serve its riders. It would be like comparing the salary of a police chief to the salary of an exec at Blackrock. Apples and oranges.

    A better comparison would be to tell us what Walder makes compared to other transit chiefs around the world or to the directors of other city services, such as sanitation.

  • BRTvsHeavyRail

    Let me guess next entry is how we can replace all of these subways with BRT?

  • I \v/ NY

    so vancouver opens the canada line in a week from today (opening 4 months early)… it is ALRT and is therefore automated, as a result it is expected to break even or make a profit on its operations. oh and it runs every 5 minutes and during rush hours and can run as frequently as every 90 seconds.

    the canada line is a high capacity grade seperated rail transit line carrying at least a hundred thousand fare paying riders a day upon opening with minimal operating cost (no train operators and i believe no station agents)… think about if this was case in NYC where 7 million ride the subway a day, why cant they automate the NYC subway system to cut operating costs dramatically so that the system turns a profit and then they could use that money to pay for transit expansion especially subway expansion?

    All of these variables were considered when looking at the overall cost. The Canada Line’s estimated capital cost of about $1.9 billion ($2003) will provide the additional transportation capacity equivalent to 10 major road lanes and serve the region for the next 50 to 100 years. Fare revenue and savings associated with the Canada Line are projected to be equal to or greater than operating costs over the life of the 35-year contract, i.e., requiring no net operating subsidy.
    source: http://www.canadaline.ca/aboutFAQ.asp

  • Marcus A

    Let’s cut the traffic lanes, widen the sidewalks, and implement light rail in NYC.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m not sure who Nathan believes is anti-union, or anti-transit union, but lets put it this way.

    The interests of transit workers and transit riders are sometimes aligned, but generally not. If transit workers earn more (in total including benefits) than riders, they pay less when they go shopping because others are paid less, and the riders are worse off. Riders can benefit from a less good deal for transit workers. Both can benefit at the expense of taxpayers, or other services, but remember NYC has just about the highest combined state and local tax burden as a share of income in the U.S.

    So the deal between transit workers and other workers can be fair, it can be unfair to transit workers, or it can be unfair to other workers that ride the trains. That can change over time. My views change accordingly.

    My view is that until recently it has been more or less fair. Which is why I say the MTA has been destroyed by debts, not by workers. It would have become unfair if transit workers got a 20/50 pension while other workers get no pension at all, which is what they went on strike for.

    Now, however, their pension costs are soaring, and yet while fares and taxes are raised so riders pay more, transit workers are paying even less.

    Health care costs are rising and more and more NY workers lose health insurance, and yet riders and taxpayers are forced to pay more for transit worker’s health insurance, and yet transit worker recently got a deal not to contribute more.

    Most New Yorkers are having their pay frozen or even reduced, which I didn’t complain about because inflation has stopped going up. But from 2000 to 2007 real (inflation adjusted) average pay fell, except for those at the very top. The union claim is that they were benefitting at the expense of “the rich,” but now that the taxable income of the rich has plunged, it is clear who will be sacrificed for a 12% pay gain.

    (BTW, I never understood why labor contracts lasted more than one year. What if things change, in either direction?)

    As for transit vs. education, the Prince can tell you which union I am most upset with. The teachers got that retroactive pension enhancement. And while wage increases, particularly starting wage increases, can help service recipients as well as workers by attracting and keeping qualified and motivated workers, retroactive pension enhancements do nothing of the kind. Indeed, the worst thing public employee unions have done to everyone else hasn’t been to increase the total take, but to always work to shift a greater share of it to those who do not work.

    The TWU should be careful. Remember, I produced reams of articles showing that NYC schools were underfunded and its teachers underpaid. When things became unfair in the opposite direction, my attitude toward the UFT shifted 180 degrees. It may be too much to ask for enilightened self interest in our culture, but expect hostility to the TWU to go far beyond the MI if go in the direction that is likely.

  • MRN

    Wow. The MTA is already in the hole over $2 Billion dollars for this FY alone. Yep, there is no reason to cut service or raise prices, none whatsover.

    Good grief kids, PAY UP. Support congestion pricing. Support tolling the east river bridges. Support higher property taxes – or pay the $15+ per ride that the market could extract. CHOOSE.

  • airberd

    Regarding the last comment, is MRN a short form or Moron?
    If east river is tolled, congestion pricing is introduced etc etc, then businesses move out. This WILL happen. It will happen over years but it will happen.

    Transit systems worldwide run at a fraction of whats MTA costs. This bloated carcass needs to go.

  • Jen

    Apparently to some, we are so far gone as a country that we should freeze or roll back pay and benefits for the few who are fortunate enough to still earn a decent middle class living.

    Sorry to perpetuate the off-topic tangent, but as Nathan H. said, anti-union sentiment pervades much of the criticism levied at the MTA. It’s sad how many Americans have been conditioned to believe that wanting a living wage and adequate health care amounts to greediness.

  • Ian Turner


    Transit ysstems worldwide run at a fraction of what MTA costs.

    Citation please? Comparisons to other developed countries would be especially useful.

  • “I’m not sure who Nathan believes is anti-union, or anti-transit union, but lets put it this way.”

    Not so much you, Larry, but I’m glad it brought out a longer explanation. I think it’s great that people have an opinion about the business of a public authority, in this case its union’s pay raise. (I also wish they would pay more attention to the bigger fiscal picture.) Your opinions are particularly well supported. What I don’t think is great is others’ opposition seen on many occasions to all transit funding increases because there is a union somewhere down the line, collecting a debatably outsized share. Indeed, there is an there will be. They should try to convince a majority of their fellow citizens to stop showing such a soft spot for unions (and good luck with that), but that crusade has little to do with transit advocacy today in New York.

  • Doug: “A better comparison would be to tell us what Walder makes compared to other transit chiefs around the world or to the directors of other city services, such as sanitation.”

    Show me the figures.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Management vs. labor pay is something else that distracts from the main issue, but to the extent their is an issue, it is this.

    In the private economy, the pay of top managers has soared relative to everyone else. Some people believe that is a fair result of the market, and some believe it is the result of monopoly pricing by the executives who sit on each other’s boards and hire the same executive consultants to show they they deserve to be paid more (the equivalent of unions, the state legislature, and pensions).

    Either way, in general management level positions are paid less well than their private sector equivalents, rank and file workers are paid better (particularly if non-wage benefits are included).

    In quasi-public agencies like the MTA and another I am very familiar with, and in non-profits that get their funding from taxes, management pay has tended to escalate in competition with (or using the excuse of) the private sector, to levels that most would find excessive. Far lower than the private sector, it is higher than other public agencies. That is the situation.

    Compared with most people, Walder’s proposed salary is sky high. Compared with transportation executives outside the public sector, perhaps not. I can tell you that a culture has emerged in MTA management in which managers, engineers and other professionals compare their pay with similar workers in private organization, not Department of Motor Vehicle workers or the people working the diner.

    Just as the TWU argues that it deserves the 4 percent raises because other public employees got them, and deserve 20/50 because the toll collectors got them, rather than compare their situation with most workers. Just as CEOs only compare themselves with other CEOs, rather than compare their situation with most workers. Just as colleges only compare their tuition increases with other colleges, rather than with average income. Etc.

    You take any of these groups and make the comparison with people in general, you become the enemy — a flaming socialist in the case of the CEOs, a union-buster in the case of the TWU. And since these are the folks with power, you don’t dare.

  • Boris

    Every time I’m stuck in traffic somewhere, to calm myself I think about the congestion as a second toll I’m paying. It has to be this way, I tell myself. It’s the normal order of things. I just have to wait for my turn. And I think not-so-nice things about people like airberd, who prefers that we all pay for the roads we use with our time, health, and sanity, rather than with money.

  • J:Lai

    The lack of efficiency in MTA operations is a straw-man used by NYS Senate, among others, to categorically deny additional funds to the agency. It’s disappointing to see people here buying into this fallacy.

    Yes, it is true that there are inefficiencies. The same is true of any big organization. But the potential gains of realisitic efficiency measures are not big enough to overcome the massive underfunding of transit. Maybe you could squeeze the union and get some wage/benefit concessions, but you are not going to switch to minimum wage train operators. There is only so much you can squeeze from operating efficiency, and it isn’t enough to fill the hole we’re in.

    The MTA needs stable revenue sources that will allow it to fund operations at an acceptable level of service, and in addition to make sufficient capital investment to maintain the existing system and modernize/improve the system as well. If you really want to reduce the operating budget, that is where you should be looking – improvements in automation and information processing that will allow things to run faster, more frequently, and with less human supervision.

    I believe that upgrades to existing infrastructure would be money better spent than “megaprojects” like the 2nd ave subway, but that is a different debate. Likewise, what proportion of the revenue shold be derived from various taxes, tolls, state and federal funds, and fares, is a different topic. But the reality is that some mix of these things needs to be allocated to provide more revenue.

    To airberd, your claim that business will leave NYC in response to East River tolls is simply incorrect. No one can know the economic implications in a such a complex city with certainty, but all the evidence points the opposite effect. Increased tolls to enter Manhattan will result in decreased congenstion and, given that some of the toll revenue is dedicated to transit, increased access via transit. Any non-fringe economist will agree that the aggregate effect is decreased marginal costs and increased demand for business located within the toll zone, and possibly even in the region bordering the toll zone.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The MTA needs stable revenue sources that will allow it to fund operations at an acceptable level of service, and in addition to make sufficient capital investment to maintain the existing system and modernize/improve the system as well.”

    If only that were the case, the agency already would have enough money. We’ve added one dedicated revenue source after another.

    Unforntunately, it the MTA needs all the above AND it needs to pay back its massive debts AND it needs to fill the pension underfunding hole AND it has to pay retiree health benefits accrued in the past for which not one dime has been set aside. All these claims must be paid before a dime is spent on operations, which are funded before a dime is spent on sufficient capital investment.

    That’s the problem. And not just at the MTA.

  • If east river is tolled, congestion pricing is introduced etc etc, then businesses move out. This WILL happen. It will happen over years but it will happen.

    No, airberd, that’s what you imagine will happen.

    You might have already forgotten but the major business interests of New York were among the strongest supporters of congestion pricing. If it weren’t for the Partnership’s endorsement and studies, it CP would never been put onto the table by our strongly pro-business mayor.

    Looking into the next decade, congestion is projected to be the biggest drag on the local economy and will discourage the best and brightest from moving to NYC over other cities, giving an edge in the global economy to cities such as London, Hong Kong and Singapore, where strong efforts are being made to ensure a consistent, dependable flow of goods and labor.

  • Very interesting post! The simple illustration of parking space that would be required is pretty powerful and unfortunately looks a lot like most American cities.

  • Let’s cut the traffic lanes, widen the sidewalks, and implement light rail in NYC.


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