Transit Deserts Leave New Yorkers Thirsting for Access to Jobs

A map produced by the Pratt Center (## shows neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income commuters with long commutes.

Much progress has been made in the five years since Scott Stringer’s first transportation conference, but many transit riders are still wandering in the “transportation deserts” that were the focus of one afternoon panel at the Manhattan borough president’s follow-up event, Transportation 2030, this past Friday.

Transportation deserts include neighborhoods from City Island in the Bronx to Mill Basin in Brooklyn to the North Shore of Staten Island. They are places where would-be transit riders face hour-plus commutes, multiple transfers or having to pay multiple fares. As panelist Elena Conte of the Pratt Center for Community Development put it, “It’s not just about deserts, its about being near a station that takes you somewhere you need to go in a timely fashion and is accessible even if you are older, or mobility challenged or traveling with small children.”

The city’s transportation network was planned to get commuters into and out of Manhattan. But as the Center for an Urban Future brought home in their recent report, “Behind the Curb,” there has been a huge jump in the number of residents who both live and work outside Manhattan over the past twenty years, leaving many New Yorkers without time- and cost-competitive transit options. Panelist and CUF Executive Director Jonathan Bowles said that this is due in part to the growth in the health care and education sectors, which have large campuses in the outer boroughs, sometimes in the middle of transportation deserts. Inadequate transit hinders the ability of these institutions to draw and retain top-notch talent and limits the economic development potential in large areas of the city.

Tamisha Chevis of Rochdale Village Community In Action For Better Express Bus Service noted these deserts also pose a major hardship for working class New Yorkers. Members of her organization “just want to be able to get to work,” she said. “We have decent jobs; we just want to be able to keep them, so we can feed our families.” According to research by the Pratt Center, nearly two-thirds of the 750,000 New Yorkers whose commute to work takes over an hour have family incomes under $35,000.

The Pratt Center and CUF both support the expansion of Select Bus Service or a more robust Bus Rapid Transit system as an efficient and cost-effective way to serve these trips. But as Conte and Bowles pointed out, the MTA often fails to consider the bigger picture of how to optimize service across local bus routes, SBS lines and the subway to minimize delays, transfers and paying multiple fares.

For example, New York City Transit for years has resisted calls to have buses run over the bridges, which would provide riders from Brooklyn and Queens a one-seat ride instead of forcing a transfer at the edge of a borough. The MTA seems stuck tweaking (or cutting) existing services instead of innovating and adapting to new commuting patterns. Governor Cuomo or the next mayor could convene a taskforce including leaders of outer borough hospitals and colleges to get their input on how transit could better serve their employees’ needs and inject some fresh ideas into the planning process. Of course, it would also be helpful if Albany was willing to commit to creative ways of funding transit expansion such as road pricing.

Another panelist, President and CEO Joe Meyer, suggested that private companies like his share more data with the MTA to assist with their bus route planning. With tens of thousands of daily users, Hopstop’s data would give transit agencies another window into where people want to go and how long it takes them to get to those destinations today, revealing where services changes would be useful. NYC DOT has begun to work with the TLC to harvest private sector data on taxi trips and speed to better understand congestion patterns. DOT notes: “The methodology also helps augment the limited use of commuting-based Census data, which looks only at trips to work, which comprise only 18% of all trips, and not shopping, leisure or other trips.” Imagine if NYCT was able to use data from HopStop, Google, or even dollar vans to understand trips in parts of the city where the informal sector is filling in some pretty big transit gaps. All this data could be used for their route planning process.

Meyer said he has offered his data to the MTA in the past but the agency has not been interested. Unfortunately it seemed like no one from the MTA was in the room, or perhaps at the conference, to hear these ideas or offer up ones of their own.

  • Glenn

    I’m all about better interconnected transit system, but consider for a moment that as soon as commutes from those locations get better, rents and housing prices will soar. Or put another way, why don’t all those people just move closer to where they work? Ah, because they can’t afford to! In the same way that Jane Jacobs liked a mixture of older and newer buildings on the same block to allow for different incomes to live near each other, “transit deserts allow very low income people to get their first rung on the city’s economic ladder through longer commutes because those locations are not desireable to higher income folks.

    The point about making better connections around NYC outside of Manhattan might get around this as those jobs might not pay as high or those transit connections might not be as valuable.

  • Anonymous

    Transportation deserts are also created by pricing MetroNorth and LIRR in the city higher than the subway.  Many low-wage workers live near the commuter lines, but they save money by taking multiple transfers by bus to reach the cheaper subway.

    Paris avoids the problem of transit deserts by charging the same price for its RER commuter lines (like MetroNorth and LIRR) as its Metro (like our subway).  So low-wage workers can use whichever is more convenient.  We should do the same.
    Minor point: Add to the transportation deserts large swaths of inner suburbs like Yonkers, Mt. Vernon, New Rochelle (all in Westchester) and Hempstead on Long Island.

  • Ben from Bed Stuy

    Bike share will be a mirage for the transit desert! A brief bike ride, five or ten minutes, could help someone avoid one of those transfers, or get directly to an express bus or train.

  • TO_Man

    The bus route layouts in the outer boroughs are a total mess (actually, The Bronx isn’t that bad). But Brooklyn and Queens have bus route layouts that are inefficient, and make no sense. Instead of trying to follow a simple grid pattern, they seem designed as “point to point” bus routes. But even then, you still don’t have a one-seat ride from downtown Brooklyn to Flushing, Queens for example.

    I would redo all the bus routes in Brooklyn and Queens to more closely follow a simple grid system as opposed to the mess they have now. Here is some good reading on the benefits:

  • carma


    queens and brooklyn bus service is a mess, not because the bus routes are not following a grid pattern.  the layout of queens and brooklyn is not totally based on a grid system.

    remember, that the history of queens was based on a lot of farm land in the latter 19th century, and they city was slowly building out but the farms still existed while the city built around it.  this leaves queens to a quasi-grid system.

    as for brooklyn, it is closer to a grid system, but with a lot of cross diagonal streets. (example bay parkway, kings highway)

    if one was to want to get from downtown brooklyn to flushing, it pretty much is a disaster by bus.  i can think of taking the q59->q58, at a minimum of 1 hour 15 minutes.
    the subways would be pretty sucky too w/ the no headways G transfer to the 7.

    the best bet in this case is driving.  if traffic isnt bad on the bqe, 25 minutes.

  • TO_Man

    I know that Queens and Brooklyn aren’t totally based on a grid system, but you can still base the bus routes on a grid system of sorts with a little meandering of routes. I would redo them completely. First thing I would do is get rid of the concept that there are Brooklyn routes and Queens routes, with only a handful crossing the Brooklyn/Queens border. I would also combine many of the routes. If you look at the maps on, you often have to transfer to another route to continue going in the same direction (eastbound, for example). Having fewer, longer routes, that run east-west or north-south all the way through the combined area of Brooklyn/Queens would mean more one-seat trips, and fewer transfers. It would also make it psychologically easier to get around.

  • carma

    you cant have a gridlike system with a little meandering of routes.  especially not in a configuration like queens / brooklyn.

    if you look closely, there already exists routes that work “relatively” well by hugging the path of major thoroughfares.  Lets take a couple in mind.  Q60 mirrors Queens Blvd and Q11 mirrors Woodhaven blvd, Q46 for Union Tpke

    In brooklyn, you have the B68 mirrors Coney Island Ave, the B7 mirrors kings highway, B1 for 86th street.

    These example routes, pretty much are your North South, East West routes as brooklyn/queens have no clear TRUE grid system
    also, you mention that you may have to transfer multiple times to traverse eastbound, but also remember extremely long routes have very poor service levels due to bunching of buses when one bus is late.  you will be left with either empty buses, or buses that you cant even get on, not serving anyone that needs to be served.

    lets take the Q58 for example.  Horrible bunching of buses, with very poor headways on a very long route.  25 minute waits during peak travel are not uncommon, only to travel at a speed of 5-6 mph.

    i have to say that the last round of mta cuts did WORSE to bus service than subway service.  but lets face it, even in the best situation, bus service in queens/brooklyn is going to be poor at best, and abysmal at worst.  the only cures for inter queens/brooklyn travel are to build a subway or take it on your own wheels.  2 or 4. human powered or gas powered.

    Im very interested in what you would propose.  if you have any graphical representation, i’d love to see it.

  • Joe R.

    I would like to see what you have in mind also, TO_Man.  As far as I can see the streets in Queens are basically pretty irregular, and I’m not seeing how we could do much better with bus routes than we’re already doing, but I could be wrong.  As an aside, Queens streets have a fascinating history.  Some of it can be found digging around this site:

    It’s interesting how far back the history of some streets goes.  For example, Fresh Meadow Lane was a country road at one time, and even still looks the part in places.  And before that it may have even been an Indian trail.  And then you have the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway was now functions as a grade-separated bike route (it’s a pity it’s not longer).  And so it goes.  Basically, what we have in Queens is an incorporation of some really old streets with some attempt to put in a grid as the city grew.  The grid at best is irregular.  It works well once you get used to it, but it’s still easy to get lost in areas you’re unfamiliar with.  This Saturday I was riding in Whitestone, got lost briefly, and nearly got on the Cross Island Parkway!


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