More Rich People Means More Traffic Problems For NYC

What's in their wallets? Maybe gold doubloons.
What's in their wallets? Maybe gold doubloons.

Mo’ money, mo’ cars.

Buried in the city’s latest Mobility Report was a tiny grenade in our urban class warfare: Car registrations are up from 1.76 million cars in 2010 to 1.92 million in 2017, an increase of 9 percent during a period when the city’s population only grew by 3.2 percent.

Population growth can’t account for all of the increase in cars — and it may not even explain any of it. The Department of Transportation report notes that car ownership went up only .1 percent in the city between 1990 and 2000, even as the population increased by 9.3 percent over the same period.

So what’s behind the comparatively massive increase in car ownership today? It would be easy to blame the MTA — indeed subway and bus service have deteriorated over the last few years — but car registrations were rising even before the Summer of Hell and the current crisis.

A major factor is wealth. The influx of wealthier residents into the city — which has been blamed for hypergentrification, the construction of towers that now cast the bottom of Central Park in permanent shadows, and even the closing of your favorite dive bar — is also causing the rise in car ownership.

The city’s median income is up 11 percent since 2010 — rising from $54,787 to $60,879 in 2017.

“And as the city population gets wealthier, more people tend to buy cars,” said a spokesperson for the Regional Plan Association.

A contributing factor to the rise in car ownership is also where the increasing wealth can be found — mostly in the outer boroughs, where populations are rising and transit is less attractive. The median income in the Bronx has risen from $34,624 in 2010 to $36,953 in 2017 (nearly 7 percent), and it’s up in Brooklyn, too, from $43,567 to $57,782 (a whopping 32 percent!).

“With the majority of growth concentrated in the outer boroughs, it’s no surprise that car ownership is up; the calculus of transit vs car ownership shifts dramatically the farther you get from the Manhattan core,” said Nick Sifuentes of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which has long documented the connection between rising wealth and car ownership.

Whatever the cause, more cars is a bad thing for New York, for multiple reasons. The carnage of the automobile scares off potential cyclists, but it also congests our streets and pollutes our air. Oh, and it undermines transit. As DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg noted in her letter introducing the mobility report, the increase in car registrations, drop in weekday subway ridership and increase in the use of for-hire-vehicles were all trends that are “unsustainable.”

“A 9-percent increase in vehicle registrations from 2010-2017 is huge — 150,000 cars — and it’s not good when the car growth rate exceeds the population growth rate,” said Ben Fried of TransitCenter.

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