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How New Yorkers Get To Work

by Bruce Schaller, Jan 15, 2004
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Debates about transportation often focus on big construction projects such as the Second Avenue subway, the extension of the #7 subway line and a new transit center on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan. One might think from this that the only means of transportation in New York is the subway to Manhattan. But, according to recently released data from the 2000 census, less than a third of New Yorkers take the subway to work in Manhattan.

Of the 3.7 million people who work in the five boroughs of New York City, 2.1 million work in Manhattan. (That's 56 percent. The other 44 percent work in the other four boroughs). Of the 2.1 million who work in Manhattan, 1.2 million take the subway or a commuter railroad to get to work.

The homes of these 1.2 million workers are not spread evenly throughout the city. As Map 1 below shows, commuting to Manhattan by subway is more prevalent among workers who live on the Manhattan's west side above 59 Street, in lower Manhattan west of Broadway, and in certain neighborhoods in western Queens and western Brooklyn.

Of those taking other forms of transportation to work in Manhattan, 53,000 regularly take a taxi, 163,000 walk to work, and 245,000 take the bus.

Another 360,000 people drive to their Manhattan jobs. Map 2 shows, not surprisingly, that auto commuters live disproportionately in the outer parts of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island in areas with poor transit access to Manhattan and/or very long transit commutes. Even in these areas, however, no more than 15 percent of workers drive to Manhattan.

In sum, the Manhattan jobs powerhouse plays a huge role in the lives of residents of Manhattan as well as those of Astoria, Sunnyside, Forest Hills, Brooklyn Heights, Red Hook and Park Slope. The arc of neighborhoods from Forest Hills in Queens to Park Slope in Brooklyn might be thought of as part of Metropolitan Manhattan, providing relatively high-paying jobs as well as shopping and entertainment to residents of these areas.

As to the rest of the city, there are two basic commuter profiles. The first group is commuters who take transit (subway or bus) to non-Manhattan jobs. Map 3 shows that this group is concentrated in central Brooklyn and parts of the Bronx. One-third to 40 percent of commuters living in these areas take transit to non-Manhattan jobs, most of which are in their home borough.

The final group is comprised of workers who drive to non-Manhattan jobs. In eastern Queens, the northeast section of the Bronx and southeastern Brooklyn, auto commuters going to non-Manhattan jobs constitute 40 percent or more of workers living in these areas. These workers are the least like the typical New York commuter since they do not work in Manhattan and drive instead of taking transit. In this respect, these workers fit the national profile of commuters more than the New York profile.

Amid the diversity of New York, then, three main commuter profiles are evident:
- The subway commuter to Manhattan;
- The subway/bus commuter to outer-borough jobs (mostly in workers' home borough); and
- The auto commuter to outer-borough (and sometimes suburban) jobs.

The first group is concentrated in or near the Manhattan core, the second group in the neighborhoods somewhat further from Manhattan, and the third group in the outermost parts of the outer boroughs.

What does this profile mean for thinking about transportation improvements? First and perhaps most obviously, it raises the question of what type of transit improvements would serve non-Manhattan subway, bus and auto commuters.

Second, these data point to areas that transit may help to continue to transform New York even without any new subway construction. One such area is along the L and M lines in Williamsburg, Greenpoint and along the Brooklyn/Queens border. Only one-quarter to one-third of workers living in these areas take the subway to work. These areas are already becoming more attractive to Manhattan professionals who may be priced out of housing in Manhattan. The once-dowdy L train has acquired some cachet. This trend is likely to continue.

Thus, not only subway lines that might be built, but lines built long ago but currently underutilized, will shape New York's urban landscape.

Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

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