What Gotham Tells Us about Mass Transit

Samuel Staley's picture
I recently got taken to the proverbial wood shed on Planetizen Interchange for arguing that mass transit is unsustainable. So, I decided that it might be useful to look at the mass transit system that seems to be the most successful in nation: New York City. New York has the density and economic activity to sustain transit-perhaps a best-case scenario in the U.S.  Nearly 30% of the nation's transit riders lived in New York City in 2000, according to Alan Pisarski in Commuting in America III. The city, however, views itself as a "walking city," not a transit city, according to the long-term plan created by Mayor Bloomberg and his administration, PlanNYC. It's easy to see why.  

The following data is based on information in the PlanNYC transportation chapter. The Technical Report on Transportation can be found here. Among all trips in NYC (all five boroughs), walking is the dominant travel mode, capturing 34% of all trips. The private auto captures another 33%.  What about mass transit? Rail, bus, and ferry account for 30%, a close third. That's a balance system, but not a transit-oriented one.

 Transit, however, dominates certain types of travel to the Manhattan business district (destinations below 59th street), capturing a whopping 73.8% of all trips, (data from www.publicpurpose.com), but commuting accounts for 16% of all trips. And transit doesn't dominate commuting in any of the other boroughs-the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or Staten Island. Breaking down the data by borough reveals a lot. First, walking is the primary mode for shopping in Manhattan and the Bronx and is about equivalent in trip share to the car in Queens. On Staten Island, the car rules. Transit trails the automobile by significant margins in the Bronx, Brookly, Queens, and Staten Island. Transit fares somewhat better on personal business trips, dominating trips in Manhattan and competing effectively against the automobile in Brooklyn. The car still rules in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. 

Unfortunately, the report doesn't break down commuting mode, lumping transit and walking together for commuters into the Manhattan hub. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of commuters to Manhattan either walk or use transit. 

What's the bottom line? Based on evidence from New York, we don't have an example of a transit-oriented city. We have walking-oriented cities (Manhattan), balanced trip mode cities (Bronx and Brooklyn), and auto-oriented cities (Queens and Staten Island). Transit plays an important supporting role in the first three, but its role is very narrow and trip specific (niche oriented) in the latter two.   

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.



Michael Lewyn's picture

But they all go together

Interesting numbers indeed. But I would add a qualifier: transit and walking sustain each other. To get to transit stops, people have to walk. And if you are thinking about walking more than a few blocks, it is more tempting to do so if you have transit as a backup if you are in a hurry or if the weather turns bad on the way. In other words, a good transit system makes a city more walking-oriented, and the opportunity to walk makes a city more transit-oriented.

By contrast, driving drives out (pun intended) both walking and transit. If I drive to work, I normally am not going to be taking transit or walking on the way home.


I agree with Lewyn. The stats provided demonstrate exactly what we want- cities where transit and walking are complementary and help diffuse car use.

In addition, I'd like to add that the author here seems to be missing the point. It is not a contest as to who can get more passengers: cars, trains or sidewalks, but it is about providing choice. We develop wide, high speed roads and separate land uses to such an extent that it is almost impossible to provide reasonable alternatives to driving. People can't choose to walk or bike or take the bus even when they want to. The greater issue is one of land use and transit alternatives working together to shape our cities.

If the stats are correct, what you show here indicates a need to put more effort into providing usable transit choices other than the car. If the author feels that transit is currently not serving this need I would be very interested in learning about any alternative solutions he might have.

Transit-Oriented Development Generates Pedestrian Trips

You are right that transit and walking sustain each other.

New York has so many pedestrian trips because many of its neighborhoods were built around transit. Residents can easily walk both to transit and to the shopping and other services near the transit stops.

Some newer neighborhoods, particularly in Staten Island and parts of Queens and also in parts of Brooklyn, were not built around transit, and so they are much more auto dependent.

These statistics just prove the obvious fact that, if you build transit-oriented development, you will get more transit and pedestrian trips.

Charles Siegel

That's it exactly

Quoted for truth. I mean this guy said it perfectly. Transit and walking are a package. To get to the transit stops or station usually you have to walk (in some cases you can drive). Once the transit goes to where you need you get off and walk. Work those two steps backward to get home. Providing transit allows more choice as well, not just where to take the transit but how many transit options we have. Its much better than creating roads, roads and more roads only.

It's not what you said, it's how you...

I want to clarify that you were taken to the "proverbial woodshed" because you misused the term sustainability. At this point everyone expects the Reason Foundation to argue that mass transit is not economically sustainable. However, it is absolutely vital to ensure environmental and equity sustainability in urban environments. And all three goals make up sustainability as it is defined in planning. So if you are going to post on a planning site (which I hope you continue to do) please use the terms correctly.

This response, I believe, is really splitting hairs, because as the other post states, in today's world of mobility you can't have a walkable city without transit use. As you point out walking is the mode of choice to go shopping, but transit dominates in work trips. Does your argument imply that there are separate sets of people engaging in these different trips?

When I lived in San Francisco, I commuted by bus and BART Mon - Fri. On the weekends I often used my car, but I'd walk around the neighborhood. So was I a transit commuter or an auto shopper, or a pedestrian shopper. Obviously all of them.

However, the Reason Foundation would probably prefer that I be in my car all the time. It would argue that since I can't use transit exclusively that money was a waste. I on the other hand would argue that cities with transit are the places where residents have true choices, and while you argue against new transit around the world, go to the places that have it, and few are arguing to get rid of it.

on being a commuter

I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any city in the world that was "transit-oriented". It's just not how urban life works.

I live in a large US city with good (by american standards) transit service. I don't own a car, yet I only use transit for about 10% of all trips. My situation (of not having a car) is hardly unique here although my friends and neighbors use transit to varying degrees, which is to say, every day, or just a few times a year. I can take care of most of my necessities in a 20 minute walk. For those destinations beyond 1 mile but under 3 miles I ride a bicycle. If the weather does not permit I take the bus or subway. For trips from 3 miles to 20 miles (and in some cases up to 100 miles) I normally use transit but here's where the nuances come in. If the purpose of my trip is to bring home bulk items, or if i'm traveling in a group, or if my destination is off of the transit network or off of the timetables then I drive.

One day last week I rode to work, walked to lunch, took the bus to a meeting, ran an errand on foot, took the bus back to my office, rode home, took the subway to dinner, walked from the restaurant to a movie theater, and took a taxi home. It's now been over a week since I've used transit.

How often one uses transit depends almost entirely on where they live in relation to: where they work, major shopping destinations, and social activities.

Take away transit and my trips outside of a 3 mile radius become difficult to impossible. The increase in auto trips and storage facilities likely to follow a long-term interruption of transit service would seriously degrade the pedestrian environment and make cycling a more harrowing experience. The cost of renting cars to make up for the loss of transit service would come close to the cost of owning one.

In short, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, even places like Minneapolis, Seattle, or Madison would not exist as we know them today without transit. Even a bike/ped city like Amsterdam would find it very difficult to function without its transit.


I find it difficult to figure out what point Sam is trying to make here. How does the fact that transit is not the single most dominant choice for trips anywhere prove that it is unsustainable?

Transit is a intergral and absolutely necessary part of a balanced and complete transportation network. So is the private auto as well as biking, walking, etc. But the dominance of any particular mode in a certain area doesn't devalue another mode and render it "unsustainable."

And for the economic argument, anyone with any knowledge of economics knows that the reason the car appears to be the favorable choice here is the lack of externalities being figured in. If people had to pay out of pocket the true costs of driving their car, they would be much more likely to use public transit, walk, etc.

The Old Switcheroo

Staley illustrates the old adage that "Figures don't lie, but some liars sure can figure". Supposedly, the take-away from his post is that even in the transit mecca of New York, transit only does a third of the work.

What he has really illustrated, though, is that transit gives you a big bonus- tons of trips that are walking, and don't even incur any transit expense at all. But wait, that's not all- a pedestrian uses a lot less space than a car. All of the public spaces for transportation are lost to the tax rolls, so reducing the amount of space used for transportation not only reduces expense, but can increase revenue (or reduce the rate of taxation).

Compare and contrast with, say, the average subdivision in which every dollar spent on the roads makes it less likely that people will walk. Not only do you not get any free bonus walking trips, you also must provide parking for vehicles, making it unlikely that people will even walk from one store to the next.

A transit city is a walking city because each trip begins and ends with a walk. And walking is about the most libertarian thing you can do.

what Gotham really tells us

Gotham REALLY tells us is that transit is vital to creating pedestrian-oriented cities. DUH!

How obvious does it have to be?

I lived in NYC and transit made all those walking trips possible. Now I live in a city where there is very limited transit, so the car is often the only way to get to my destination. And since each place I stop at has it's own 'customers only' parking lot, I spend more time moving my car around than walking.

Carolyn L. Krall, AIA

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