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.

  • sbauman

    The point is to generate revenue for the MTA. If we’re not going to use taxation to properly fund the MTA (and, clearly we’re not going to, given Americans’ self-defeating ideological orthodoxy on absurdly low taxes), then the fare needs to be above the break-even point.

    There would be no need for an MTA, if the fare were above the operating break-even point. There would be private companies, investment bankers, etc. vying to build and operate new systems. Remember, it was Jay Gould who monopolized the Manhattan el’s in the 1880’s in a pump and dump scheme that’s been repeated by Uber and Lyft.

    And a fare of $6 or $7 is far from “gouging”. A price index comparing something to a normal everyday minor purchase such as a slice of pizza or a Big Mac is often used.

    Let me try another metric. The nickel fare was set when the price of gold had been set at $20/ounce. The last quote is $ 1,386.61 per ounce. If the subway fare were tied to gold (as some of their bonds were), the nickel fare would be $3.46.

    The obvious remedies here are to have fewer stops, and also to give buses signal priority, such that the light at an intersection would always go green when a bus approaches.

    I’ve addressed the question of TSP in my reply to Mr. Joe R., below. The literature suggests that the time spent stopping and starting from a bus stop is 30 seconds plus the time to process the boarding and alighting passengers. Reducing the number of stops will not provide the time required to double bus speeds, unless the increased walking distance to bus stops simultaneously reduces the number of passengers to nearly zero.

  • Joe R.

    Any numbers for all-door boarding? That could result in further time savings.

    Anyway, let’s do it again, but assume traffic signal preemption, not priority. That’s what we should be doing anyway. No reason for buses to ever wait at red lights.

    1.3 minutes per mile-time at bus stops
    0 minutes per mile-time stopped at traffic signals
    0.2 minutes per mile-other
    TOTAL: 1.5 minutes per mile

    To achieve 4.1 minutes per mile then the time spent in traffic would need to be 2.6 minutes per mile, or a 23 mph average. That’s possible without resorting to way above 25 mph speed limits. 30 or 35 mph might be sufficient. Even if we stick to the 25 mph speed limit, you might end up with something closer to an 18 mph average in traffic, or 3.3 minutes per mile. With the other things I mentioned, that gets you to 4.8 minutes per mile. Not quite a doubling of the speed, but still over a 40% decrease in travel times. That’s not bad at all.

    We could also follow Ferdinand’s suggestion of removing some stops. Many NYC bus routes have stops spaced much closer than 1/4 mile, which should be the standard. Removing/consolidating stops so no stops are closer than 1/4 mile would increase the average speed when in motion. Sure, this needs to be balanced against the increase in walking time, but worst case a person would be walking 1/8 of a mile more to their bus stop. At 3 mph that’s an extra 2.5 minutes. The average would be half that. The key is how many riders would be affected since the idea is to minimize collective travel time. A lightly used bus stop which is removed will have a small impact. Heavily used stops should probably not be removed.

    Here’s an article of BRT, which is what NYC should aspire to:

    “typical speeds of BRT systems range from 17 to 30 miles per hour (27 to 48 km/h)”

    A doubling of bus speeds on NYC streets isn’t beyond reason. We just need to take the steps to make it happen.

    “There’s nothing inherently safer for buses traveling at higher speeds on city streets than other vehicles. Reduced sight distances in the City make 25 mph (or lower) maximum speeds necessary. Buses nor their drivers see through parked cars, push carts, buildings, and other urban street furniture.”

    Most of the fatalities are caused by failure to yield or ignoring traffic signals. If speed is the primary cause, it’s usually speed grossly in excess of the 25 mph limit, not 5 or 10 over. The design of some roads may preclude higher speed limits for buses but not in all cases. Also, on streets with center-running bus lanes we could basically design the bus lanes with the same protections as railroad tracks, including crossing gates at intersections. These things would make running at even highway speeds safe.

  • Joe R.

    Let me try another metric. The nickel fare was set when the price of gold had been set at $20/ounce. The last quote is $ 1,386.61 per ounce. If the subway fare were tied to gold (as some of their bonds were), the nickel fare would be $3.46.

    If we tied the nickel fare to the CPI, it would be $0.53 now:

    Even if we go with the $0.10 fare in July 1948, the fare adjusted for inflation now would still only be $1.06.

    If anything fares now are way too high, not too low. I think $1 to $1.25 would be appropriate. It would be up to the MTA to reduce its operating costs and find alternate revenue sources to make up the shortfall.

    The literature suggests that the time spent stopping and starting from a bus stop is 30 seconds plus the time to process the boarding and alighting passengers.

    Don’t you save that 30 seconds, which is the extra time spent accelerating/decelerating instead of cruising, for every stop you eliminate? I also question whether or not 30 seconds is relevant to NYC bus service since cruising speeds are much lower here. Just to simplify the math, let’s assume braking and acceleration are both at 2.5 mph/sec. While it’s true acceleration tapers off, most buses can manage 2.5 mph/sec at least up to about 15 mph. Anyway, at a constant 2.5 mph/sec it takes 10 seconds to accelerate/decelerate to/from 25 mph and 183 feet. To do both takes 20 seconds and 366 feet. Constant cruising at 25 mph takes 10 seconds to cover the same distance. Therefore, each stop costs 10 seconds, plus the time for passengers to enter/leave the bus. We might even allow 15 seconds to account for the fact the acceleration tapers off, but no way is it 30 seconds, at least at the speeds on NYC streets. 30 seconds might be more appropriate for bus cruising speeds of 45 to 55 mph, which is actually common in a lot of the US on suburban or rural streets.

    You’re forgetting that the average speed in motion will increase when stops are spaced further apart. It’s pretty much the same principal which applies to railways. However, for now let’s just assume we save only 15 seconds per stop. If we go from 8 stops per mile to 4, we’re saving a full minute per mile. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

  • Joe R.

    It’s funny because I said something similar to that when relatives pestered me about not getting a driver’s license when I was in my early 20s. I told them I’m not looking to get a job driving a taxi, bus, or truck, so why do I need a driver’s license? I couldn’t afford a car, either, so what’s the sense of getting a license? I’d rather spend the time and money required to get a driver’s license on things I enjoy.

  • sbauman

    assume traffic signal preemption, not priority. That’s what we should be doing anyway. No reason for buses to ever wait at red lights.

    There’s the not so little matter of cross traffic (including buses). That’s why even TSP(riority) isn’t practical at every traffic signal. Total preemption would make it even less practical.

    “typical speeds of BRT systems range from 17 to 30 miles per hour (27 to 48 km/h)”

    The linked article refers to BRT systems that operate on grade separated rights of way. There are no pedestrians nor cross traffic on such rights of way. These BRT systems do not share the roadway with cross traffic (consisting of other buses, pedestrians, etc.). Efforts to simulate the pristine conditions of grade separated rights of way onto urban streets have not yielded BRT’s speed performance.

    Most of the fatalities are caused by failure to yield or ignoring traffic signals.

    I disagree. Most fatalities are caused by the collision between vehicle and victim. According to the AAA’s Safety Foundation report: “Results show that the average risk of severe injury for a pedestrian struck by a vehicle reaches 10% at an impact speed of 16 mph, 25% at 23 mph, 50% at 31 mph, 75% at 39 mph, and 90% at 46 mph.” As you can see, increasing vehicle speed from 23 to 31 mph doubles the KSI probability. Increasing vehicle speed to 39 mph triples it. Buses tend to be more lethal than automobiles because the high front overhang pushes pedestrians under the vehicle.

  • GuestBx

    While there are capacity issues on certain lines, during certain times of day, an influx of say 10-15% of drivers wouldn’t be that much a significant impact on the MTA due to the overall capacity of the system.

    Traffic calming reduces collisions, bus lanes provide priority to vehicles that are a more efficient way to move large numbers of people than private vehicles which are often single occupancy. Bicycle lanes in NYC are mostly painted on street and offer no protection, and protected lanes again improve safety for road users. Traffic in NYC has been long standing, scapegoating these public health and efficiency improvements does is not a good case for their removal. If every bicycle lane, bus lane, and traffic calming measure in NYC was removed there would still be heavy traffic.

    The MTA has long been modernizing the mass transportation system. The impact of deferred maintenance through the mid-20th century had a debilitating effect on the ability for the system to cope with increased ridership. Stll, there are many projects recently completed, in progress, or planned to help improve things.

  • The usefulness of being able to drive comes up every so often, even for someone who has never owned a car.

    I have brought people to or from hospitals (in their cars), and have driven my mother to and from doctor’s appointments (in her car). In less urgent situations, I have driven other people’s cars so as to allow the cars’ owners to drink.

    Recently I drove my friend’s car home from a motorcycle dealership when he picked up his motorcycle. And a few years ago I rented a truck to move furniture when my mother sold her house.

    These situations will inevitably arise; so intentionally not having a licence is foolish. Nowadays, getting a licence is beneficial if only for renting a Revel scooter/moped.

  • Joe R.

    My brother is a car enthusiast who got his license as soon as he was old enough to legally drive. He generally handles the driving chores like bringing my mother to the doctor or dentist. Nobody in my immediate household plans to move. The house is paid off. At this point it costs less than most apartments to stay here. Unless the neighborhood changes for the worse, I’ll be here until they carry me out.

    Here’s the entire chronology of why I never got a driver’s license:

    1) During college, and until I got my first job, I literally didn’t have the money for the permit/license fees, and possibly driving school. Or if my parents taught me, money to cover the gas. They really didn’t want to be bothered teaching me or my siblings how to drive, anyway.

    2) Once I started working, I didn’t have the time to learn to drive, even if I had wanted to. I was generally working 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. Whenever time I had off, I was basically too spent to do much of anything.

    3) By the time I started working from home in late 1990, I already had severe carpal tunnel syndrome from the aforementioned jobs. This is unfortunately something which runs in the family. My mother went out on disability for it in her mid 40s, after being back at work a few years. At that point I was, and still am, physically incapable of holding or turning a steering wheel for more than a short time. As it is, my hands start to go numb after about 15 minutes while riding. By the time I’m riding 90 minutes or more, I often can barely work the brake levers.

    Nowadays, getting a licence is beneficial if only for renting a Revel scooter/moped.

    Along those lines, this is one reason I feel there should be no license requirements for any electric vehicles with a top speed of 30 mph or less. As you’ve already mentioned, riding a Revel doesn’t entail any skills a regular cyclist doesn’t already possess. A short, mandatory training course prior to your first rental would be a good idea. Such a course could weed out those who couldn’t handle it without resorting to requiring a driver’s license.

  • Burnzwenipee

    “The MTA has long been modernizing the mass transportation system. The impact of deferred maintenance through the mid-20th century had a debilitating effect on the ability for the system to cope with increased ridership and time.”

    You literally contradicted your first sentence you also helped make my point

    I never said removing bus lanes bicycle lanes and what not would get rid of traffic completely did I??? I did however say implementing this things have led to an increase in traffic I also did say nyc won’t admit the problem is the current infrastructure can’t support the current population you have areas where buildings that wear 4-7 stories are being demolished and replaced with once’s that are upwards of 10 stories with far more units within each floor plan than previous residential buildings those individuals have to travel which is another reason for the increased traffic instead of shutting down roads to create pedestrians only areas massive bike lanes and bus lanes how about investing in new roads??? Additional lanes on existing roads which have seen space reduced due to bikes???? A lot of nyc sidewalks are massively wide and the foot traffic barely utilizes the entire footage how about digging into sidewalks cutting it back several feet installing bike lanes and leaving an island with the remaining space the serves as curb to park pick up and drop off passengers and Whatever else

  • Burnzwenipee

    Bicycles literally contribute zero dollars to maintaining roads so how much sense would it make to try and rid the street of cars that contribute to road maintenance and repairs???

  • GuestBx

    Roads and other automotive infrastructure are mostly paid with money from general taxes.

  • GuestBx

    That’s not a contradiction, my second statement does not negate the fact that the system still has capacity. There just aren’t enough drivers that would switch to make a major impact on the mass transportation system in NYC. You have bus routes registering 45,000+ rides a day.

    With increased bus efficiency you could absorb a lot of people who would switch. Bus lanes enable more capacity, as do some of the other changes coming like stop reduction, TSP, and straightened routes. Buses will become more attractive for shorter trips that people would otherwise take trains or drive. The subways too have seen several ongoing modernizations and expansions, reliability improvements. It’s not perfect but work is in progress that will make major changes over time.

    The primary reason for traffic is too many vehicles in too little space. Traffic was a serious issue 20 years ago, and it’s a serious issue today.

    As for protected bicycle lanes, they aren’t that common citywide. On the streets they exist, traffic is not the most severe either. Cities are population centers too many units is not the issue, the issue is the need for more efficient transportation. And most of the city has plenty of room for growth with appropriate transportation policy. Cutting out the sidewalks? Where would you walk when you park? And many side walks in the most dense areas of NYC have more pedestrians that automobiles. Sidewalks in comparatively less dense areas are not very wide.

    Also keep into consideration that if you create more space for driving, more people will use cars, creating more traffic. There are less than 3 million registered passenger automobiles in NYC. If it gets a bit lighter traffic wise, more people will switch to that mode. Now take into consideration a metro area of almost 22 million. There will never be enough room for everyone, or even most people to drive. Even now only a small percentage of NYC residents drive to reach work, yet traffic is very heavy.


New York’s Car Ownership Rate Is on The Rise

Car-free households broken down by Assembly district. Red areas indicate where car ownership has gone up, blue areas where it has decreased. Click on each district for more information. Fewer New Yorkers are driving to work than they did a decade ago, according to Census data Streetsblog reported on last December. But that same data […]

Study: All Across America, Car Commuting Is Dropping

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group are on a mission to explore the downward trend in driving. In a series of reports, they point to evidence that it isn’t just a temporary blip, but a long-term shift in how Americans get around. Today, the two organizations released a new report, “Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in […]

Report: Access to Car-Share and Bike-Share Is Worse in Communities of Color

Car-share and bike-share services are making it easier to go without owning a car in American cities, but access to “shared-use” systems remains limited in communities of color compared to majority-white neighborhoods, according to a new analysis from the Shared Use Mobility Center [PDF]. SUMC developed a method to analyze which places have the most potential for car-share and bike-share usage across […]