How About a Transit System Where No One Has “No Good Options”?

Image: FiveThirtyEight
New York doesn’t have to be a city where a half-million people have “no good options” for transportation. Image: FiveThirtyEight

A lengthy FiveThirtyEight article today by Nate Silver and Reuben Fischer-Baum crunches some data to arrive at two major insights: First, New Yorkers use Uber much like they use taxis, and second, for-hire cars are used primarily by well-off New Yorkers to supplement transit in close-in neighborhoods, not to replace car ownership in the outer boroughs.

The best part of the piece is actually a graphic that breaks down NYC’s transportation tribes, segmented by income and transit access. One of these groups didn’t get much attention in the article. See that red box? Here’s what Silver and Fischer-Baum say about that:

Low income, poor public transit access: In census tracts with no nearby subway line, 66 percent of households have access to a private vehicle. An exception among these neighborhoods, however, is those where incomes are below $35,000 per year: Car ownership remains low there. Given the high cost of living in New York, a $35,000 income is the equivalent of about $20,000 for an average American household, making even a clunker a stretch to afford. Families like these have no great choices.

This isn’t a small population. Of the 750,000 New Yorkers who commute more than an hour each way, two-thirds make less than $35,000 a year, according to a 2010 Pratt Center analysis. For comparison, only six percent of those hour-plus commuters made more than $75,000 annually. People of color carry the heaviest burden: Pratt’s numbers show that on average, black New Yorkers face commutes that are 25 percent longer than white New Yorkers. For Hispanics, commute times average 12 percent longer than for whites.

A report from the Rudin Center earlier this year echoed Pratt’s findings: More than two-thirds of residents in neighborhoods with mediocre transit access still relied on the bus or subway for their commutes, the report found. Residents in these neighborhoods had lower incomes and a higher unemployment rate than people in other parts of the city.

As housing prices in neighborhoods close to Manhattan with decent transit access continue to rise, low-income New Yorkers are increasingly moving to areas with sub-par transit access.

Compounding these challenges: The geography of employment is shifting, and the new patterns aren’t well-served by transit routes designed to get workers to and from Manhattan. Jobs in the outer boroughs are growing twice as fast as in Manhattan, according to the Regional Plan Association, with employment hubs including airports, hospitals, and industrial zones lacking decent transit access.

There are plans on the table to improve transit beyond the radial system with Manhattan at its center, including rail projects like the Triboro Rx or bringing Metro-North to the Hell Gate Line in the Bronx.

For years, the transit advocates and progressive politicians have made the case for a Bus Rapid Transit network, arguing that it provides the biggest bang for the city’s buck and can deliver transit improvements to the outer boroughs quickly.

To its credit, the de Blasio administration backs many of these ideas, and has promised to build 13 Select Bus Service routes. It’s also floated the idea of extending the Utica Avenue subway and backed smaller changes, like expanding the discounted CityTicket program for Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road riders in the five boroughs.

But progress is slow, and not just because rail expansions carry hefty price tags. Car-dependent residents with the ear of local elected officials have pushed back against bus lanes in eastern Queens. Even on Woodhaven Boulevard, where DOT is proposing the city’s most promising Select Bus Service upgrades, elected officials require lots of hand-holding.

It’s these neighborhoods where transit improvements have the greatest potential to transform the lives of New Yorkers. Uber gets the headlines, but it’s not going to solve these problems. For that, New York needs better transit in the outer boroughs.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Dynamic carpooling. Having some people take riders for a modest charge, say the cost of a transit ride plus 50 cents or a dollar, so other people don’t have to have a car, or can have one instead of two.

    To the driver it is enough to perhaps pay for the car and supplement their income, but not enough to make a living. But neither is Uber.

    A taxi or equilvalent provides a ride that most people can’t afford in exchange for a income that it is hard to live on.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2015/01/05/uber-uber-alles/

    As I envision it, the low and moderate income suburbanites would be organized into a non-profit, dynamic carpooling club. Which would then hire some IT and service provider to provide the app for just 25 cents a ride or so. The ride would include two to three riders. These would not be professional drivers, with the insurance and tax implications, just those taking people along to share the cost of the vehicle.

  • Larry Littlefield

    And, of course, bicycles.

    There is no way something like Citibike could serve someplace like Canarsie of South Jamaica at a reasonable cost. All the trips would be in one direction — toward the transit hub in the morning, from the transit hub in the afternoon.

    But if you had bike parking garages at the transit hub, as in other countries, people could ride their own inexpensive bikes there, and then take transit if necessary, as a substitute for bus to subway.

  • AnoNYC

    Indeed. I notice that subway stations in this city experience a dearth of bicycle racks as well.

    The cityrack program should focus especially on creating a collection of racks near every station.

    I submitted a request for bicycle racks near my local subway station a few months ago. Nothing yet.

  • ahwr

    Some stations (LIRR and subway) have bike racks already. Any data on their utilization? Would be nice to see streetsblog or the MTA put something together showing where there are racks, and where they are or are not being used.

    Say a garage operator is willing to turn some of their car spots into secure bike parking (or at least more secure than a rack on the sidewalk). They’ll put up a chain link fence and a lock to only take as many car spots as they can fill up with bikes, maybe hire a valet to cram in as many as possible and as added security. How much would they have to charge to outbid car parking in Jamaica, or near some other outerboro subway stations?

    And would it be legal to do so? What if the garage was built to satisfy a minimum parking requirement? It’s my understanding that at least in some municipalities those spots would have to be preserved. If it’s not legal, what’s happening with the parking reform the city was working on?

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