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)


How Transportation Should Play Into Obama’s Jobs Plan


When President Obama outlines his plan to create jobs and jumpstart the U.S. economy during a joint session of Congress tonight, transportation and infrastructure are sure to be a prominent theme. The President is expected to propose $300 billion in stimulus spending to spur hiring, which is likely to include funds for critical infrastructure projects. Since it is unclear what the President’s job plan will entail, here are some suggestions on how the President can optimize stimulus funds to create jobs and get shovel-ready projects going.

  • Call on Congress to pass an immediate, 2-year extension of a transportation bill. When the current authorization expires on September 30, 2011, federal highway projects will come to a grinding halt, states and cities will stop receiving Federal transportation aid, and hundreds of thousands of jobs will be thrown into jeopardy. To delay an extension would destabilize critical infrastructure projects and could cost the U.S. and state governments billions of dollars. Extending the transportation bill should be priority #1 for Congress.
  • Streamline the Federal approval process for infrastructure projects. Bureaucratic red tape severely diminishes the effectiveness of stimulus funds. In some cases, Federal highway projects have taken over a decade to complete due to onerous and duplicative Federal approval requirements. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) took aim at the lengthy period it has taken for infrastructure projects to get funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the “stimulus bill”) and has proposed to streamline the process. President Obama should echo this concern. Accelerating project delivery is critical to spurring growth, creating jobs, and maximizing the effectiveness of taxpayer dollars.
  • Provide “Stimulus Grants” Directly to States. To ensure that the most-needed projects take priority, new stimulus funding should go directly to states in the form of formula grants. The economic downturn is being felt differently in each state, and each state’s recovery will thus require a different approach. The President’s jobs proposal should empower states and Governors  with the authority to award stimulus funds.

Though it was encouraging to hear Obama push for reauthorization of the transportation bill in his weekend radio address to the nation last Saturday, it is unclear whether Congress will heed the President’s warning to pass a bill to stave off job losses and $1 billion in lost revenue to states. And with strong opposition to additional Federal spending from House and Senate Republicans, White House officials have acknowledged that a stimulus plan of the size Obama is expected to introduce is unlikely to gain traction on the Hill.

The President’s speech will be broadcast live tonight at 7pm EST.

President Obama Renews Call for Transit Bill Extenstion

Photo: Transportation for America

With less than four weeks until Federal surface transportation programs expire – along with the fuel taxes that fund them – President Obama reiterated his support for an extension of the transportation legislation. In his weekly radio address to the nation today, Obama warned that a failure to extend the transit programs could threaten “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Read the full Bloomberg News article on the President’s radio address here.

When Congress languished to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration in July 2011, 4,000 employees were furloughed and 200 construction jobs were halted for nearly two weeks. The partial shutdown cost the government $30 million each day in airline taxes it could not collect.

Failure to enact either a full reauthorization or a temporary extension of surface transportation programs would have even greater repercussions to the fragile U.S. economy. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that a delay of 10 days to extend the legislation would cost the U.S. $1 billion in lost fuel tax receipts and furlough some 4,000 government officials. If the Highway Trust Fund – which funds most highway and mass transit programs – were to shutdown, most if not all of the 1.8 million transportation and construction jobs it directly supports would be threatened. Nearly 118,000 jobs are linked to Federal highway and mass transit programs in New York State.

House and Senate leaders must reconcile wildly different reauthorization proposals when Congress returns from its summer recess this week. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has proposed a $230 billion, 6-year full reauthorization that limits Highway Trust Fund outlays to the amount of fuel taxes received and cuts authorized spending by 35 percent from current levels. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has proposed a $110 billion, 2-year extension.

The current authorization will expire September 30.