Avoid These Roads!: Top 10 Bottlenecks in the New York City Region


Traveling in and around the New York City area this holiday season? Make sure you avoid these roads. A recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute identified the most congestion-prone corridors in the nation. Using this data, the Rudin Center has developed a list of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the Tri-State area to help you plan ahead and get where you’re going on time. These corridors were ranked based on the Texas Transportation Institute’s Buffer Index, a measure of how much additional time should be allocated for travel along these corridors to account for traffic congestion.

The Christmas holiday season is one of the busiest long-distance travel periods of the year, as tens of millions of Americans will be traveling long distances each day during a two-week period. A 2001 study by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics identified that 9 out of 10 Americans who travel long-distances during the holiday season do so by car, and long-distance travel during the Christmas holidays is 23% higher than that of other periods. The 2001 study also identified the weekend before Christmas was the busiest travel days of the holiday period, with 93% more long-distance trips than the daily average on Saturday, or December 22. Thus, travelers driving in and around New York City both during and after the holiday season should take note of these ten worst traffic bottlenecks in the region.

  • The Bronx-bound Whitestone Expressway and the northbound Hutchinson River Parkway are tied for the worst traffic bottlenecks of any corridor in the Tri-State area. The two-lane northbound “Hutch” in Westchester County requires motorists to plan for a trip three times longer than normal along the corridor to guarantee on-time arrival at the end of the route.
  • While part of the Whitestone Expressway from Flushing to the Bronx is twice as wide as the “Hutch,” it is just as prone to crippling congestion during peak traffic hours, and also requires motorists to plan for a trip that’s three times as long as expected.
  • Traveling north out of the city during an evening rush hour? Pick your poison. The northbound Henry Hudson Parkway, FDR Drive, and Major Deegan Expressway are all equally unreliable and all experience peak congestion from 3 pm to 7 pm on a typical weekday.
  • The longest traffic bottleneck among the top 10 in the region is southbound I-95, including the notorious Cross-Bronx Expressway and the Jersey-bound George Washington Bridge. Evening commutes along this route can be a nightmare, as motorists must plan to travel 24 minutes more (about 40 minutes total) along this 11-mile corridor to guarantee on-time arrival.
  • Heading into Lower Manhattan early in the morning? Make sure you avoid the Pulaski Skyway approach to the Holland Tunnel. This 3.3 mile corridor is the least reliable stretch of highway in the entire state of New Jersey, and requires motorists to plan for at least 10 more minutes of travel.


Over the past few years, New York City has become an emerging high-technology cluster as a wide swath of Manhattan stretching from 42nd Street to SoHo has been given the namesake “Silicon Alley,” with the arrival of many tech start-ups such as Foursquare, located near Union Square and the establishment of new offices for corporate titans such as Google in Chelsea and Facebook in Midtown. There are distinct differences between “Silicon Alley” and its West Coast counterpart in Silicon Valley. While high-tech companies are mostly located in sprawling office parks along arterial roads in Northern California, offices of tech firms in Manhattan, both large and small, are situated mere blocks from each other. While start-up companies in Palo Alto are 45 minutes away from the region’s primary financial district in downtown San Francisco, their Manhattan counterparts are a
short subway ride away from Midtown or Wall Street. Given the major presence of financial services, media, and advertising companies in Manhattan, New York City has become a preferred destination for ambitious, forward-looking start-up technology firms.

Technology companies along the "R" subway line


This past weekend, The New York Daily News reported that numerous start-up technology firms seemed to be oriented around the “R” line of the New York City subway that travels from Brooklyn, up Broadway in Manhattan, and to Astoria, Queens. The Daily News referred to the “R” as the city’s “Silicon Subway,” as many firms have decided that a location with good accessibility to mass transit is appealing out of consideration for how their employees, many of whom live in Brooklyn, commute to work. This map above from The New York Times shows where the hundreds of tech startups that have secured venture capital funding over the past year were located. I drew in the R-train’s route to illustrate how these start-up tech firms appear to be oriented around the subway and along Broadway.

Since 2002, Brooklyn has become a popular place to live for Manhattan’s high-income creative professionals: estimates based on US Census population and worker-household dynamics data reveal that the number of Manhattan workers earning more than $75,000 per year living in Brooklyn has increased by 217%, and the number of Manhattan workers in professional and technical services (a broad category that includes most high-tech occupations) living in Brooklyn has increased by 29%. Since about 4 out of every 5 Manhattan workers commuting from Brooklyn take the subway to work, and this reliance on mass transit in commuting continues to shape where employers choose to locate in New York City, as these maps have illustrated. Just as financial employers migrated to Midtown Manhattan to be closer to major transit hubs that their workers use when traveling to work from the suburbs, these start-up technology firms have also oriented themselves near mass transit, along the “Silicon Subway.”

Beyond the ARC: Is the Gateway Project a viable alternative for Trans-Hudson access?

About one year ago, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie abruptly cancelled the nation’s largest infrastructure project: the construction of two Trans-Hudson tunnels to double the capacity for rail access to Midtown Manhattan. The plan would have provided for direct services to Penn Station from the Main, Bergen, and Pascack Valley lines of NJ Transit, significantly shortening commutes for Manhattan workers living in Bergen and Passaic counties in New Jersey as well as Rockland and Orange counties in New York. As of 2009, approximately 86,000 Manhattan workers live in these counties. However, Gov. Christie, citing cost overruns, decided the price of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project was too steep for the state to afford.


While the increasing financial burden to New Jersey taxpayers was a very important downside to the project, there is little doubt that the ARC tunnel would have addressed an increasingly important issue: the need to accommodate the growth in commuting from New Jersey to Manhattan. Since 2002, the number of New Jersey residents working in Manhattan has grown by approximately 21%(increase of more than 40,000). Currently, there is only one Trans-Hudson rail tunnel that exists (the North River Tunnels) and has been running at full capacity since 2003, with 24 Manhattan-bound trains crossing the tunnel during the peak morning rush hour. Since Amtrak and NJ Transit trains both use the tunnels as a Trans-Hudson crossing, any problem in or near the tunnels can create significant delays not just for local travelers, but also regional

Photo Credit: Amtrak

travelers. The derailment of a NJ Transit train in the North River tunnels during a busy commute last August created travel chaos, leading to significant delays on Amtrak, NJ Transit, and even LIRR trains that share tracks west of Penn Station. Given the demand for access and the current bottleneck that exists, the expansion of Trans-Hudson rail capacity is long overdue.

Last month, the Amtrak-sponsored Gateway Tunnel project, pitched as an alternative to the defunct ARC Tunnel, received $15 million in federal funding from Congress for engineering and design studies. With the support of both Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the Gateway project now appears to be much farther ahead, at least in terms of financing, than its closest competition for Trans-Hudson access, the extension of the New York City subway’s 7-train to Secaucus Junction. The $13 billion project promises to increase capacity by 30 trains per hour with triple the number of Amtrak trains (including high-speed) and allow for 13 more NJ Transit trains per hour, with additional room for MetroNorth trains to Penn Station.

While the ARC project was primarily designed to serve the New Jersey commuter, the Gateway project serves the dual purpose of increasing Trans-Hudson capacity for commuters and for travelers across the Northeast Corridor, enhancing the viability of a more advanced high-speed rail system connecting the densely populated region. Removing bottlenecks along the Northeast Corridor for high-speed rail has attracted bipartisan support in Congress: Rep. John Mica (R-FL), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently came out in favor of additional investment in the Northeast Corridor rail infrastructure.

But the Gateway project only allocates half of the capacity that the ARC tunnel would have originally provided for NJ Transit trains, and one issue remains unresolved: the opportunity for some New Jersey commuters to have a direct, “one-seat” ride into Manhattan. Currently, only 2 NJ transit lines, Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast, provide regular direct services to Penn Station in Manhattan. The construction of the Kearny Connection in 1996 allowed for NJ Transit trains on the Morris & Essex lines to terminate at New York Penn Station, but due to capacity constraints, only half of the trains running on these routes actually do so, with the rest terminating in Hoboken instead. Furthermore, the Gateway proposal contains no plans to build “loop tracks” (part of the ARC tunnel project) that would have created the “one-seat” ride for commuters from Bergen, Passaic, Rockland, and Orange counties to Manhattan, who will still have to transfer at Secaucus regardless of whether the tunnels are built.

Pictured: Entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel in Weehawken, N.J. 38% of Manhattan Commuters from Bergen Co. and 42% of those from Passaic Co. get to work by bus. Photo Credit: John Munson, Newark Star-Ledger

The lack of direct rail access to Penn Station has made New York City-bound commuters living in these counties far more dependent on suburban buses as a convenient means of getting to work. According, to data from the New York City Department of City Planning, nearly one-third of all New Jerseyans working in Manhattan commute by bus. Demand for more convenient access to Manhattan has created a vast marked for bus services, as commuters may travel by buses by either NJ Transit or dozens of private operators serving various counties and regions west of the Hudson River. The Bergen Record also reports that more than half of the 225,000 travelers using the Port Authority Bus Terminal on a daily basis are from Bergen and Passaic counties, two areas that lack direct commuter rail access to Manhattan.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of bus parking at the terminal, Trans-Hudson bus access is also at capacity. Commuter buses are forced to find parking on the other side of the Hudson River and drive back to the bus terminal to pick up passengers, contributing to traffic on both inbound and outbound lanes at the Lincoln Tunnel and frequent delays for bus commuters. Plans for an $800 million bus garage at the Port Authority Terminal fell through after proposed Hudson crossing toll hikes were scaled back this summer.

While the tunnel project promises to improve access for New Jersey commuters to Midtown Manhattan and appears to be moving forward, efforts to upgrade Trans-Hudson connectivity requires a two-pronged approach so that commuters have a convenient means of getting to work. Any proposals to improve Trans-Hudson accessibility without providing convenient and direct rail services to Manhattan for at least one-third of Trans-Hudson commuters must also address an equally urgent bus capacity issue. Addressing both issues will be necessary to make the Gateway project a viable alternative to the ARC tunnel, and to make Trans-Hudson journeys more comfortable for all commuters.



On October 25, Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, President of MTA Capital Construction, provided an update at the Rudin Center for Transportation at NYU Wagner on the statuses of the MTA’s four ongoing transit “mega-projects,” each of which are scheduled for completion within the next five years. These projects will each have an enormous economic impact on both New York City and the surrounding region, by shortening commutes, relieving traffic congestion and overcrowding in existing transit lines and hubs, improving transit connections, facilitating accessibility to job locations in Manhattan, and supporting transit-oriented development projects.

The New York City economy is far more dependent on its transit systems than any other urban economy in the country: half of Manhattan commutes are taken by subway and almost three-fourths of such commutes are taken by transit. More than 5 million riders take the MTA subway on a daily basis, which is more than the populations of Chicago and Houston combined, and approximately 560,000 riders take the MTA suburban rail lines each day. Modern, efficient, and reliable rail systems will be key to the continued economic competitiveness of New York City in the 21st century, and the MTA’s investment in the following ambitious infrastructure improvements illustrates their unwavering commitment to the city and the region’s future.


The planned Fulton Street Transit Center will serve as a major transportation node in Lower Manhattan, with connections to the 11 MTA subway lines and 6 stations, New Jersey-bound PATH trains, and the new World Trade Center site.

 The plan calls for construction of a modern transit facility with improved street-level access at Fulton Street and Broadway, and an underground pedestrian concourse (the Dey Street Passageway) linking the redeveloped World Trade Center site and PATH transit hub with the E and R trains and the Fulton St. hub. This will facilitate transfers and connections between subway lines, provide more access points to the Lexington Avenue 4 and 5 trains, and integrate the Corbin Building next door as a neighboring retail hub. The $1.4 billion project is expected to be completed in 2014, and should play a key role in maintaining the economic vitality of Lower Manhattan with the improvements in access to and from the World Trade Center site and the Financial District.


According to Dr. Horodniceanu, the crowded 4-5-6 subway lines along Lexington Avenue on the East Side of Manhattan have more daily passengers than the entire CTA subway system of Chicago, with an estimated 1.3 million daily riders. A subway line along the Second Avenue corridor has been discussed for decades as a means to relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue lines during rush hour commutes.

These plans have become reality, as the MTA broke ground in April 2007 for a new “T-train” extending from Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan to 125th Street in Harlem, and the extension of the Q-train from 57th Street to 125th Street. Construction of the Second Avenue Subway will proceed in four phases, with the first phase consisting of the extension of the Q-train from its present terminus at the 57th Street-7th Avenue station northward to the new 96th Street-2nd Avenue station. New, state-of-the-art subway stations at 63rd, 72nd, 86th, and 96th will be constructed during this phase, and are scheduled for completion in 2016. By then, the $4.4 billion project is expected to have a significant impact on reducing crowds on the 4-5-6 trains (projected 13% decrease) and travel times for those living in the Upper East Side.


Like the Second Avenue project, the extension of the 7-Train to Manhattan’s West Side will provide subway access to a part of Manhattan that has long been in need of it. The extension is designed to serve the transit needs of the Hudson Yards redevelopment project, which will feature a mixed-use, medium-to-high density development extending from 42nd to 30th Street along Manhattan’s West Side and the expansion of the Javits Convention Center. As Dr. Horodniceanu noted, the extension of the 7-Train from Times Square to its new station at 34th Street-11th Avenue in the heart of the site will make the Hudson Yards a “transit-oriented development,” which will be crucial to its future success.

The 1.5-mile extension was originally proposed for the purposes of New York City’s 2012 Olympics bid and the construction of a West Side football stadium for the New York Jets at the Hudson Yards site; while both the Olympics bid and the Jets stadium proposal fell through, plans for the 7-train extension remained intact, and the $2.1 billion project is expected to be completed by 2013.


One of the largest mass transit infrastructure projects in the nation, the East Side Access project will have the greatest regional impact among all four of MTA’s ongoing “mega-projects,” as it will connect the Main and Port Washington lines of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to Grand Central Terminal, which currently only serves MetroNorth commuters from the Hudson Valley and Connecticut. Currently, the Park Avenue corridor near Grand Central has emerged as a major hub of corporate headquarters and high-paying jobs, as many financial services and corporate management jobs have moved there from Lower Manhattan in recent decades.

The East Side Access project will enable the 157,000 Long Island residents currently working in Manhattan to take the nation’s busiest commuter rail directly to Grand Central Terminal, potentially reducing commutes by 40 minutes. This would be a significant asset for suburbs in Nassau County such as Great Neck on the Port Washington line, where currently more than 20% of residents commute by rail to work, one of the highest rates of any municipality in the nation. Shorter and more attractive transit commutes can not only increase property prices in suburban Long Island, but also provide additional opportunities for transit-oriented development (T.O.D) near key nodes. The project would also relieve congestion at New York Penn Station, thus reducing delays for Manhattan commuters from New Jersey.

The project will consist of the excavation of tunnels in Manhattan and Queens and the construction of an underground passenger concourse at Grand Central Terminal with eight train tracks, four platforms, and mezzanines and concourses. Overall, the East Side Access is the MTA’s most ambitious mega-project with a cost of $7.3 billion, and is slated for completion in 2016.

Long Commutes in the New York City Region: Explaining how we commute in New York City and the surrounding suburbs

Photo Credit: Suzy Allman for the New York Times

Recently, the Census Bureau released a comprehensive report describing how Americans traveled to work in 2009. Once again, the New York metropolitan area was ranked as having the longest average commute in the country at 34.6 minutes, followed by Washington DC and Poughkeepsie. Great Falls, Montana has the shortest commute time of 14.2 minutes. Some have jumped to the conclusion that the New York region has the worst commute in the country simply because it has the longest, but a closer at the “Journey to Work” data can help explain the long commute lengths.

(Data Source: US Census Bureau 2009 American Community Survey)

The figure above shows that residents in the New York City region are far more reliant on transit to get to work on a daily basis: 2.7 million commuters take transit to get to work on a daily basis, and 300,000 rely on a commuter rail system that primarily serves suburban areas. Transit commutes, on average, are more than 20 minutes longer than car commutes. In particular, since commutes by rail in the region average 70 minutes in length (almost three times as long as an average car commute in the country), and 43% of all rail commutes in the U.S. take place in the New York City region, where the modal share for commuter rail is almost seven times as high as the national average. It is clear that the high share of transit, particularly rail, commutes is responsible for skewing the average commute lengths, rather than congested roads or poor accessibility to job locations.

Among those who commute to Manhattan, the numbers are even more skewed towards transit modes: 73.2% of Manhattan workers take public transit to get to work according to 2009 Census data, a proportion that is more than 14 times as high as the transit modal share for commuters nationwide. The share of Manhattan commuters traveling by rail is 11.7%, which is more than 21 times as high as the rail modal share for commuters nationwide.

In July 2011, the prominent urban economist Richard Florida introduced several explanations of commuting mode shares and lengths in New York and other U.S. metropolitan areas, such as population density, weather and climate, residential development patterns, and occupational characteristics. However, he curiously did not mention job location patterns as an explanation of how we commute, since after all, the purpose of these trips is to get to the workplace in the most efficient and convenient way.

The New York City metropolitan area is unique because a high concentration of well-paying jobs are still located in a central business district such as Midtown Manhattan, whereas in other regions in the country, job opportunities are more dispersed in “technoburbs” and “edge cities.” Therefore, residents of the New York region, particularly those living in the suburban areas, still rely heavily on mass transit to get to work: a recent Forbes study ranked the top public transportation cities in the country by modal use, and all but two municipalities of the Top 10 were in the New York City region. These municipalities not only included New York and nearby cities such as Hoboken and Jersey City, but also distant suburbs such as Great Neck and Bronxville, located along major commuter rail lines such as LIRR and MetroNorth. Thus, transit is not only essential for commuting among city residents, but also residents of suburban areas and “bedroom communities” in New Jersey, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley, who take short drives to the nearest park-and-ride lot and take the train or express bus into Manhattan. These commutes are long, but convenient enough for suburban residents to choose them over a long, stressful, and increasingly expensive drive into the city.

In cities with more dispersed job locations, the best and, in most cases, the only way to gain access to those jobs is by driving, due to transit systems that provide limited, unreliable, or non-existent services to job locations. In metropolitan areas such as Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Raleigh-Durham, job opportunities are not concentrated in the downtown central business district but dispersed across the region in office parks and strip malls off arterial roads. Thus, the most practical and sensible way to access the workplace is to drive.

These maps below show how job locations could play a major role in determining commuting travel modes and lengths.

NEW YORK CITY (jobs primarily clustered in traditional “C.B.D.” in Manhattan)

BAY AREA (metro area with high transit use, jobs clustered in traditional “C.B.D.”)

DALLAS (notice the dispersion of job locations along interstates, beltways, and arterials)

OKLAHOMA CITY (again, notice the distribution of jobs along major highways)