New York is a funny city. It’s expensive to live here. It’s expensive to eat here. It’s expensive to buy apartment, go to school, pay taxes, the works. Now, it ends up that it also takes longer to commute to work than it does in just about any other part of the nation. Density and that harried pace of life in the City that Never Sleeps comes with considerable patience.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Census Bureau, in the biggest data dump in its released, released the results from the American Community Survey. Conducted between 2005-2009, this census takes sampling data to draw up a picture of the nation from every level imaginable. Some of the data is available to the city block. (Check out The Times for more on the top-level findings, what they mean for our region and a great interactive map.)
As I was browsing the data, I decided to pull up some numbers on commute times. Nationwide, the average commute time is just 25 minutes for those who do not work at home. In the Los Angeles metro area, where only seven percent of the people take public transit and over 80 percent drive, the mean commute is just 29 minutes.
Meanwhile, closer to home, the results make us out to be a city out of place. In the New York Metropolitan Area, only 41.5 percent of commuters drive while 43.9 percent take public transportation. The region’s mean travel time to work is 36.6 minutes, and within the city, that number spikes to 39 minutes. In fact, parts of the region — Staten Island in particular — feature the highest commute times in the nation at over 40 minutes, and in Queens, where over 50 percent take public transit, the mean commute time is 42 minuts. In Kings County, where 60 percent of commuters take public transit, commute times are a breezy 41 minutes, and only in New York County, colloquially known as Manhattan, does it take 30 minutes to commute to work.
This commute data is probably the single most telling part of the Census survey. From it, we understand why areas of the city come with rents that would make your eyes bulge and your wallet shrivel. From it, we understand why people grow so harried with their travel times and why no one is satisfied until trains run so frequently that wait times are essentially zero. From it, we see the flaws in the way New York’s business developed.
The city features such high commute times because the vast majority of workers are trying to get to Manhattan, and Manhattan, an island, doesn’t have very many access points or direct routes from outer boroughs. With few exceptions — hospitals and airports — the city’s job hubs are in Lower Manhattan and Midtown Manhattan. Because relatively few people live in these areas, we travel, and we travel from great distances for comparatively little money. What we don’t pay in gas, insurance and auto depreciation, we pay, at a lesser cost to the environment, in travel time.
As the crow flies, my commute from Park Slope to school in the morning is around 4.5 miles. On a freeway going 65, I could cover that in less than four minutes. At 2 a.m., it might take 15 or 20 if I drove. On the subway during rush hour, it takes around 25-30 minutes door-to-door.
Of course, public transit is vital to the city’s well being. Because Manhattan is an island, it can’t handle the traffic. It’s a commercial hub in a geographically isolated area that needs the subway — and requires people to travel for a while — to thrive. That our city’s forefathers had the foresight to build a vast public transit system is a minor miracle, and it’s sort of silly that we have such a love-hate relationship with the subway and the public transit system. Without it, New York City as we know it simply wouldn’t exist.