What Gotham Tells Us about Mass Transit

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.

2 minute read

June 19, 2007, 7:14 AM PDT

By Samuel Staley


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.   


Samuel Staley

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban and real estate economics, regulations, economic development, and urban planning.

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