Do 12 American Regions Have Better Transit Access Than NYC? Doubtful.

A Brookings report ranks the New York region 13th in transit accessibility. Can that be right?

Does the New York City region really rank only 13th in the nation in providing transit access to jobs? Has it truly been bested by a top five of Honolulu, San Jose, Salt Lake City, Tucson and Fresno? That’s what a new report from the Brookings Institution claims, but don’t worry New Yorkers, there are very good reasons to second-guess that conclusion.

The report, which Streetsblog Capitol Hill’s Tanya Snyder recapped earlier today, is an impressive piece of research. Brookings built the largest database in its long history and developed some pretty sophisticated tools to analyze it. Some of the data points that Tanya pulled out in her piece add tremendously to our understanding of the connection between transit and land use across the country. That said, when it comes to ranking the top cities, the findings are a little too counterintuitive to be true.

Notably, there appears to be a weak connection between the cities with the best transit access to jobs, as ranked by Brookings, and the cities where commuters actually use transit. New York City came in 13th in the first ranking despite being far and away the top in the latter.

According to Census data gathered by Brookings itself, 30.5 percent of New York region commuters take transit to work. Compare that to Honolulu, where only 7.5 percent of commuters ride transit, or the four runners-up at 3.1 percent, 3.0 percent, 2.5 percent and 1.3 percent. It’s not even close.

In other words, whatever Brookings is measuring in this report doesn’t seem to be particularly important for the men and women who actually decide whether to hop on a bus or in the car each morning. Whether it’s poor off-peak transit service, easy parking at home and at work, or even just transit-skeptical local cultures, something is making it so that access to jobs by transit doesn’t translate into actually making use of it.

Some of the reasons for New York’s unexpectedly low ranking may be technical. The report excludes commuters traveling between metro areas, as defined by the federal government. That seriously undercounts the number of jobs that residents of Fairfield County, for example, can access via transit, counting jobs in Bridgeport but not in New York City.

More fundamentally, however, at the top of the ranking the Brookings approach may give too much weight to transit that no one is likely to use. In the New York region, for example, they show that 89.6 percent of residents live within three-quarters of a mile of a transit stop, while 95.6 percent of San Jose residents do. Assuming transit agencies provide service in an at least somewhat rational fashion, however, those extra six percent of residents in San Jose must be among the people in the region least likely to ride transit. That extra coverage, likely off at the exurban fringe, is very low return, but counts fully in Brookings’ rankings.

That isn’t to say that coverage isn’t important. In certain areas, transit might only serve a small number of low-income and elderly riders while everyone else drives, but for those riders it’s absolutely essential.

Moreover, the Brookings report presents a worrying estimate of the upper bound of transit growth in the New York region. They estimate that only 36.6 percent of all jobs could be reached by a typical resident in 90 minutes or less. Considering that 30.5 percent of New York commuters already ride transit, this implies that the bulk of the transit-accessible jobs are already being accessed by transit.

That’s the legacy of decades of job sprawl in the region. “Even though we have the most extensive transit network in the country, the region outgrew this network in the post-war period,” said Regional Plan Association vice president for research Chris Jones. “Much of the job growth that occurred, especially during the 70s and 80s, occurred outside the reach of the subway and rail network.” Between 1970 and 2010, he said, New York City added 300,000 jobs while the rest of the region added 2,000,000. Unless job growth becomes far more concentrated in downtowns and near transit, transit commuting can only increase so much.

  • vnm

     So, two thirds of the nation’s subway and regional railroad passengers are right here in New York, and we have the 13th best transit access?   Raaiiiiiiiiight.  

  • Holy crap, what a garbage report
    “Top and Bottom Metropolitan Areas for Average Share of Jobs Accessible in 90 Minutes via Transit”

    Well yeah, if you ride 30 minutes on bike to the nearest bus station, yes, itll take 60 minutes on the bus to get to work.

    VS 20 in a car.

    Fresno not being in the bottom ten is a total joke.

    I live here. The best two bus lines operate every 20 minutes during rush hour. Every other line (all 16 others, yeah, only 18 total) run every 30-60 minutes.

  • Stevel

    Having lived in San Jose without a car, no, it’s not that good. 

  • Stevel

    -the SJ tram system is OK, the buses are so under-utilized they aren’t crowded, but they don’t go to any of the big computer companies, all of which have giant parking lots.

    Some of the companies own bus services -google, facebook- are OK for going between their sites, and google, up in mountain view, have a good company bikeshare program. For everyone else, you drive to work, reading email as you do it

  • Dugger14

    The Long Island Rail Road moves more people than any other system in the country. Metro North and NJ Transit are not far behind. True our commute times are higher and we have suffered sprawl beyond the reach of our decades old infrastructure, but if NYC is not number one in a US Transit contest, you’re using the wrong metrics.

  •  So the metric omits average and maximum peak hour service gaps? The “minutes assuming you arrive at the stop at exactly the right time to catch the service” must be wonderful minutes to have for outer-suburban transit users … where can I buy some?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The Brookings report presents a worrying estimate of the upper bound of transit growth in the New York region. They estimate that only 36.6 percent of all jobs could be reached by a typical resident in 90 minutes or less. Considering that 30.5 percent of New York commuters already ride transit, this implies that the bulk of the transit-accessible jobs are already being accessed by transit.”

    I’ll bet many of the rest could be reached by bicycle in an hour or less.   How are they counting a job in a store somewhere out in the suburbs?  If people who work in those kinds of jobs tend to live nearby, and they do, than the percent of auto-only commutes is lower than asserted.

    Only the high paid jobs draw from a wide area.  Most of those are in Manhattan.  Hence the willingness of people to suffer 90 minute commutes on mass transit to get there.

  • Ian Turner

    Especially in the New York metropolitan area, you have to compare to what percentage of jobs are reachable by car in 90 minutes or less. Otherwise, just throwing out the transit figure doesn’t give a complete figure. Traffic can be a killer, if for example you need to commute from East Queens to Bergen County.

  •  While all the commenters are right in that sheer numbers demonstrate that the region has the largest system, a great deal of problems have been created in the region. New York City has reduced available housing in transit accessible locations by downzoning. And while many outlying suburbs connected to NJ Transit, LIRR and Metro North have excellent rail service, huge swaths of Long Island, Connecticut, upstate New York and New Jersey don’t even have basic rail access. 

    Moreover, the sprawling office parks built in the post war era, with few exceptions, are simply not reachable by anything but a car making these destinations impossible for transit riders. Further complicating these matters, the region’s transit is largely built around the hubs of Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal, with minor hubs in Brooklyn, Queens, and Newark. However, our population radiates out making it virtually impossible to commute between suburbs unless they are on the same transit line. The same is not true in many other metro regions where population centers are more restricted or transit systems more diversified in travel direction. 

  • Other than the generally low quality of thinktank output, this could be for any of the following reasons:

    1. Travel times and distances are consistently higher in larger metro areas, by all modes of transportation. For the same reason, counting jobs within X miles of downtown is an awful way to compare metro areas of different sizes.

    2. Local buses are unreliable, so they underperform strict travel time metrics.

    3. If the streets are unwalkable, it doesn’t matter how close the jobs are to transit stops.

  • Larry Littlefield

     “The sprawling office parks built in the post war era, with few exceptions, are simply not reachable by anything but a car making these destinations impossible for transit riders. ”

    Don’t worry.  In NY, Connecticut and metro Boston as these parks age and tastes change, they are increasingly unoccupied.

  • Larry, 
    I would suggest that the real problem we are facing then is how do we deal with redeveloping this office parks, how can they be integrated with existing or new transit, and what do we do with these spaces when fewer workers are willing to commute to them and fewer corporations willing to occupy them. 

    For instance, NJ recently incentivized Panasonic’s move from Secaucus, New Jersey to downtown Newark, New Jersey. Newark is obviously connected to most of New Jersey’s rail lines as well as the PATH, while the suburban office park that Panasonic is leaving has almost no transit. But the office space still exists and Secaucus is attempting to fight the move (or rather, the state tax incentives). While overall Panasonic’s move is beneficial bringing more jobs to centralized urban areas, there still remains the difficulty of dealing the political ramifications of the empty suburban office space as well as the actual physical building. 

  • J:Lai

    while the majority of NYC has excellent access to transportation, the metro area is not so great.
    For example, I once worked at a job in an office park in westchester.  I could reverse commute on metro north, but the nearest station was about 4 miles away.  There was one bus which came once per hour, if you were lucky, in an irregular schedule.  There really was no option bessides a car.

  • @J:Lai: you’re right that a large portion of the metro area is not transit-accessible. But in some cities ranked higher on the list, such as San Jose, this is true for the entire metro area. Downtown San Jose is a joke; the office parks may be transit-adjacent by a 90-minute standard, but they’re not transit-oriented, and as a result the transit mode share is trivial.

  • @J:Lai: you’re right that a large portion of the metro area is not transit-accessible. But in some cities ranked higher on the list, such as San Jose, this is true for the entire metro area. Downtown San Jose is a joke; the office parks may be transit-adjacent by a 90-minute standard, but they’re not transit-oriented, and as a result the transit mode share is trivial.

  • @J:Lai: you’re right that a large portion of the metro area is not transit-accessible. But in some cities ranked higher on the list, such as San Jose, this is true for the entire metro area. Downtown San Jose is a joke; the office parks may be transit-adjacent by a 90-minute standard, but they’re not transit-oriented, and as a result the transit mode share is trivial.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

STREETSBLOG USA

The Fight for Better Access to Jobs in Detroit and Milwaukee, Using Buses

|
Low-income residents of Detroit and Milwaukee face formidable obstacles to job access. These two Rust Belt regions are consistently ranked among the most segregated in the country, and neither has a good transit system. In both regions, the places that have been growing and adding jobs fastest have been been overwhelmingly sprawling, suburban areas inaccessible to people without cars. A 2013 Brookings study […]