Pratt Center Maps the Urgent Need for Better Transit in Low-Income Areas

Each dot represents ten commuters going to work at JFK. The many red dots represent drivers, a majority of those going to the transit-poor airport. For a larger version, click here. Image: Pratt Center.
Each dot represents ten commuters going to work at JFK. The many red dots represent drivers, a majority of those going to the transit-poor airport. For a larger version, check out ## PDF##. Image: Pratt Center

Last week’s MTA fare hikes marked the latest setback in a string of bad news for New York City transit riders. But with the launch of Select Bus Service on the East Side of Manhattan this week, some advocates are looking ahead to further opportunities to enhance the city’s surface transit network. The Pratt Center for Community Development just released its Transportation Equity Atlas, a set of maps detailing the critical need for more transit options, particularly in New York City’s low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.

Overall, Pratt shows that New York City’s transportation system doesn’t serve low-income residents nearly as well as it should. 750,000 New Yorkers have a commute longer than an hour each way, for example, and two-thirds of them earn less than $35,000 a year. Only six percent of those long commutes are made by those earning over $75,000 a year.

There’s a racial divide, too. Black New Yorkers, on average, have trips to work that take 25 percent longer than white New Yorkers. Hispanic New Yorkers’ commutes take 12 percent longer than white New Yorkers’ commutes.

“If you work in a service or a manual job, you’re more likely to work in a place that is also not well-served by transit,” explained Pratt’s Joan Byron. “I think there hasn’t been much of a focus in transportation planning around blue collar and service job clusters in New York City.”

Pratt breaks down their information — drawn from the 2000 Census — to look at particular neighborhoods and job centers. In the Bronx, for example, most Soundview residents live outside walking distance of the subway. It’s no surprise, therefore, that even though only 39 percent of households own a car, 41 percent of households drive or carpool to work. Without a decent transit option, many residents in this low-income neighborhood are forced to take on the huge financial burden of car-ownership and suffer lengthy commutes:

Graphic: Pratt Center
Graphic: Pratt Center

JFK Airport is one of the region’s largest job centers, with 55,000 workers. But because of limited transit access to Southeast Queens, especially in the off-peak hours that many airport workers travel, most of those workers drive there. (The Airtrain, which opened after this data was collected, likely changed the numbers to some extent.) Better transit access to this economic engine could take thousands of cars off the road (especially the congested Van Wyck) and save working New Yorkers thousands of dollars a year.

Pratt has put together similar profiles for a total of 13 communities and 10 job centers and it’s well worth exploring all of them. Byron noted that connecting workers with a huge job cluster like Central Brooklyn’s hospital complex would be a top priority in a city like Cleveland, but that “because New York is such a huge job market, this isn’t even on the radar here.”

So how to fill in these major gaps in the transit system in a time of fiscal austerity? Pratt recommends building out a major new BRT network as the most cost-efficient way to bring transit to all New Yorkers quickly. They envision a network of 16 BRT routes, which would cross borough lines in a way that current Select Bus Service plans do not. Their map not only would connect lower-income neighborhoods to Manhattan but also to job centers in the other boroughs. One line, for example, would run from Washington Heights through Soundview to JFK.

Byron hopes that the data presented in the Transportation Equity Atlas inform the NYC DOT and MTA as they continue to plan the second phase of their BRT plan. “If you’re going to do more than a pilot, you need to think about where are the people it could benefit the most, where are the difficult trips,” explained Byron. She said that approach already appears more in evidence in phase two than in the first Select Bus Service routes.

Recently, transportation advocates have been forced to mostly play defense. When it comes time to plan for better service again, however, advocates and officials alike will now be able to do it with the Transportation Equity Atlas open in front of them, reminding them that the transit system still doesn’t work for many New Yorkers.

  • A report I read a few years ago and now can’t find, profiling the secondary job centers in the city, claims that almost everyone drives to JFK, even with the AirTrain. It explains that the AirTrain only serves passengers, instead of going to the main areas where airport workers need to go to. In addition, the area immediately around the airport is unwalkable, and as a result, even workers who live close to the airport drive, in contrast with all the other secondary centers.

    As I said on Second Avenue Sagas, there are some quibbles you could make with the Pratt Center’s proposed BRT map, but it by and large represents the biggest service needs, and is infinitely superior to the current office worker-dominated SBS plan.

  • tacony palmyra

    I know most drive, but the local buses to JFK are always full of airport employees. The Airtrain is prohibitively expensive, and not even that much quicker than taking one of those buses, depending on where you’re coming from.

  • CH

    While I’ve not read the Pratt report in detail, I take issue with the de facto linkage of travel time to transit availability (whether that is the study’s conclusion or strictly Streetsblog’s, I don’t know). Somebody living in outer Queens who has easy access to the A train could still have an hour commute or longer. That doesn’t mean they don’t have good access to transit. It means they don’t necessarily have the luxury of living closer to their jobs.

    Here, unlike most American cities, we see a concentration of wealth in the center city as opposed to suburbs/outlying areas. Thus the lower wage workers are pushed farther from many of the major job centers. Of course, JFK is not in the center city but as an airport it poses its own set of access challenges.

    There’s no doubt that transit options could be richer in many areas of NYC. Travel time, however, does not appear the most appropriate way of measuring who is and is not effectively served by transit. The feasibility or cost-effectiveness of very long BRT corridors from Washington Heights to JFK (or similar) is a whole other debate.

  • To support CH’s points, I critiqued the Pratt Center’s BRT plans a couple of years ago. Many of their proposed “BRT” routes are on narrow streets and would require huge fights over parking. Are they ready to fight the community boards and merchant associations who will jump all over any reduction in the number of parking spaces, and the Grynbaums and the Donohues who are ready to paint every bus setback as a failure?

  • First, part of the attraction of locations far from transit for firms is that rent is cheap. Building a bus line there will raise commercial rents, causing firms to look for higher-margin businesses that require more skilled (and higher paid) labor. Those low-paid workers for whom the bus line was created may not benefit.

    Second, many low-paying jobs are temporary or transient, so even if there’s a bus door to door at the current job, workers will retain their automobiles in order to conserve the ability to travel to the next job.

    Third, it makes sense that areas with low housing costs, like Washington Heights, have populations with long commutes. If housing costs are low, there’s less reason to move when changing from one job to another.

  • Cap’n, I think you’ll find that community boards are more supportive of plans that have a clear benefit to their local areas.

    And CH, while JFK is the most auto-oriented job center in New York, there are other job centers that have an auto mode share higher than 50%, for examples Flushing and Jamaica. Those do not have the inherent access challenge of a freeway-choked airport, and thus have a higher transit mode share among commuters who live nearby, but they are still quite auto-dominated.

  • Alon, many of the “BRT” routes that the Pratt Center is proposing would not have a clear benefit to the local areas. On some of those four-lane avenues and streets, the only way to speed buses through the local areas is to eliminate parking. Some of the community board opposition is justified, because they’re giving something up and not getting anything in return.

    That’s why we have subways: once the construction is finished, you can have thousands of people passing under the local area every minute with almost no disruption. But the Pratt Center argues that subways are too expensive, as though there is no cost – or risk of failure – involved in the prospect of removing parking from miles of commercial and residential streets.

    This is why I call the COMMUTE plan a bait-and-switch: it promises us “the most cost-efficient way to bring transit to all New Yorkers quickly,” with no way to overcome the opposition that aims to prevent us from implementing it quickly or cost-efficiently.

    On streets with more than four lanes, there is already through traffic speeding through at no clear benefit to the local area. In those cases, we can and should convert some of the middle lanes to separated busways without affecting parking or local traffic. You still have to fight the people driving through, and the community boards tend to sympathize with them.


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