Public transit is vital to New York’s prosperity
Without the train and bus, New York would be perpetually gridlocked, have far fewer jobs, and be much poorer.
Riding an express subway train under New York’s streets is an amazing feeling. I love knowing I’m zooming along, bypassing all the traffic on the surface and barrelling quickly towards my destination, all for the sweet price of $2.90.
It’s easy to take this convenience for granted. But something I hadn’t realized until I dug into the data is that the economy of the NYC region is utterly dependent on our public transportation system. New Yorkers and our suburban neighbors would all be a lot poorer if we didn’t have the ability for millions of people to quickly and efficiently move around our city each day.
Boosting New York's mobility is key to enhancing the city's wealth and well-being. By expanding train networks with projects like the Interborough Express and streamlining travel with enforced bus-only lanes, we're not just improving transit – we're building a more prosperous, vibrant New York.
New York depends on transit
New York’s lifeblood is its public transportation system, which makes it easy and affordable to get around. Let's ground ourselves in some basic facts that show just how central transit is to our daily life:
The car-free majority: Only 45% of New York City households own a car. In Manhattan, only 22% of households have a vehicle.1
Commuters opt for transit: 70% of New York City residents commute using public transport, bike, or on foot.2 This behavior holds true even when you expand out to people who work in New York City but live in surrounding areas like upstate New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Long Island – 71% take public transport, bike, or walk to work.3
Transit ridership is enormous: Each weekday there are around 4 million rides on the subway and 1.1 million rides on MTA-operated buses.4 MetroNorth, the Long Island Rail Road, and the PATH each have around 200,000 weekday riders.5 NJ Transit brings a further 160,000 rail and bus riders to and from New York City each weekday.6
In New York, public transit isn't a mode of last resort or a hand-out to the poor; it's a way of life that keeps the city moving and our economy thriving — all while minimizing harmful pollution.
Driving is not a viable option for New York
An alternative New York that lacked our train and bus networks would be a much less populous city with far fewer businesses and jobs. I’ve crunched the numbers, and it's clear: a New York dependent on cars just isn't feasible.
Manhattan is our region’s economic hub. Of the 2.6 million people who work or study in Manhattan, 1.8 million commute from outside the island.7 The businesses that employ those workers rely on their access to a talented and diverse workforce from across the region. The city’s geography, with its islands and its densely packed layout, mean cars simply can’t support the movement of people that our economy and way of life requires. Only public transportation has the efficiency to keep New York running.
River crossings are New York’s choke points
Consider this: what if every commuter who currently uses trains and buses to get into Manhattan decided to drive instead? I estimate that it would take 16 hours for those 1.8 million commuters to drive across the rivers that surround Manhattan. The 16 bridges and 4 tunnels that connect Manhattan to New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx simply couldn’t handle the surge.
Here’s my calculation: At peak morning hours, there are 61 vehicle traffic lanes that enter Manhattan. If we assume that vehicles drive at a speed of 25 miles per hour (the speed limit of the Manhattan streets that the bridges and tunnels pour traffic onto), each vehicle is 15 feet long8, and there’s 1.5 seconds of headway between each vehicle9, then that means each vehicle needs 70 feet of roadway. At 25 mph, 1,886 vehicles can enter Manhattan per hour per lane, which sums to 115,523 vehicles per hour able to enter Manhattan across the 61 lanes. Of course, this assumes that the vehicles flow continuously; in reality, traffic lights in Manhattan would reduce vehicle flow rates and the streets would quickly become gridlocked. On the other hand, some vehicles might exceed the speed limit or maintain extra close following distances.
However, if we ignore those caveats and accept that 115,523 vehicles could enter Manhattan each hour, then it would take 15.6 hours of non-stop driving for all 1.8 million workers who commute into Manhattan to get to work. Then, it would take another 15.6 hours for everyone to drive home again!
This is obviously nonsensical. A “rush hour” that lasts all day would paralyze the city. Instead, job-seekers would refuse to do this commute and find employment closer to home. Or, they’d lobby the city to build more bridges and tunnels. This wouldn’t be easy, though: we’d need to build the equivalent of thirty more George Washington Bridges to compress this morning commute period down to three hours.
If everyone drives, then everyone needs a parking spot
Even if it were possible to get 1.8 million drivers into Manhattan in a reasonable period of time, we’d need more than the entire surface area of Manhattan to have enough car parking space for everyone who works in Manhattan to be able to drive their own cars to their offices.
Today, Manhattan has 365,929 car parking spaces.10 Half of these are on-street parking, while the other half are in garages and off-street parking lots. Manhattan residents themselves own 200,000 cars.11
A standard car lot requires 300 square feet of space per vehicle (160 for the parking space, and then around 140 for the access aisles).12 If all 2.6 million people who work in Manhattan suddenly needed to drive to work, they’d therefore need 300 × 2.6 million = 780 million square feet of parking space, which is 22% larger than the entire surface area of Manhattan.13
There’s simply no way that all of Manhattan’s workers can have space to park a car near their workplaces.
Beyond commuting: everyone and everything has to get around the city
Our focus has been largely on commuting, but New York’s public transportation is vital for much more. It’s so important for tourists exploring the city, for residents visiting friends, for shopping trips, and for enjoying the city’s diverse attractions. Public transportation makes these journeys not just possible but convenient, affordable, and efficient, without adding to the street-level congestion.
Consider the broader picture: if public transit weren’t there, New York’s streets would become even more sluggish with added car congestion. Imagine the ripple effect on the city’s logistics – the delivery of essentials like food, clothing, electronics, and furniture, not to mention the materials that keep businesses running.
The slowdown on the streets would translate to higher costs for everyone, affecting businesses and consumers alike. The smooth movement of goods, just like the movement of people, is crucial to keeping the city flourishing.
New York’s transportation can be so much better
Imagining New York without its trains and buses really drives home the point: our city thrives because of our public transportation. It's what keeps our city moving, allowing millions to travel quickly and affordably. This isn't just about convenience; it's about the power of urban agglomeration. When people can quickly and affordably get around, as is possible in New York, everything – from business to innovation – happens more efficiently.
There’s a great quote from Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, who said:
“An advanced city is not one where the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.”14
In New York, this rings true. A whopping 77% of New Yorkers with household incomes over $500,000 use public transport, biking, or walking to commute to work.15 Our transit system isn’t just a service for people who can’t afford to drive; in New York, it’s often the best way to get around.
But we shouldn’t be complacent. If our current system brings so much value, then imagine what improving it could do. With shorter, more reliable travel times between more places in our city we’d unlock more opportunities for connection, for commerce, and the opportunity to welcome more new New Yorkers to live, work, and play here.
This is why improving the coverage and speed of the New York region’s public transportation system is so important. It’s why we need big infrastructure projects, like the extension of Manhattan’s Second Avenue Subway, and the Interborough Express connecting Brooklyn and Queens. It’s why congestion pricing is essential. It’s also why doing smaller optimizations to the system matters. That means bus lanes with automatic bus-mounted cameras to fine vehicles that block buses. It means allowing passengers to board buses using all doors simultaneously. It means barriers to make people feel safer on subway platforms. It means expanded Citi Bike service with reliable rebalancing of bikes and docks. It means protected bike lanes. And so much more.
Improving our public transit is more than a matter of convenience; it’s a step towards boosting the city’s overall prosperity and the well-being of all New Yorkers.
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Read more about NYC transportation policy on Sidewalk Chorus:
Means of transportation to work among residents of NYC from the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey, analyzed using University of Minnesota’s IPUMS USA tool. To access IPUMS, you'll need to create an account, which is available at no cost. For this analysis, I chose the 2019 data from the American Community Survey as it's the most recent reliable set not affected by the COVID-19 pandemic disruptions. While commuting patterns have undoubtedly evolved since 2019, the core findings of this analysis remain unchanged.
Means of transportation to work among people who work in New York City, Census Bureau’s 2019 ACS / IPUMS USA
Comparison of Means of transportation to work among Manhattan residents who work in Manhattan and Means of transportation to work among all people who work in Manhattan, Census Bureau’s 2019 ACS / IPUMS USA
Preferred Time-Headway of Highway Drivers, 2001 IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems Conference Proceedings
Number of vehicles per household with adjustments based on number of people in each household (as the ACS is on a per-person basis), Census Bureau’s 2019 ACS / IPUMS USA
Enrique Peñalosa: Why buses represent democracy in action by TED on YouTube
Means of transportation to work among NYC residents with income >$500,000, Census Bureau’s 2019 ACS / IPUMS USA