On a rising NY economic tide and longer commute timesBy
On the way home tonight from Yankee Stadium, I wrapped up my read of Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion. Written during the depths of the recent recession and published in mid-2012, Ehrenhalt examines the changing demographics of urban life. It’s not about gentrifiction as Enrenhalt refuses to use the word, but the idea is that urban and suburban demographics have completely flipped. The urban core is where the wealthy, and largely white, upper class while middle and lower class communities, often majority-minority, are moving further away from downtown areas and often into the suburbs.
Over the past 12 years of the Bloomberg Administration, we’ve seen this happen on a citywide scale. Even during the economic doldrums of the 1970s, Manhattan was always the wealthy core, but the surrounding areas were hit hard by bad times following white flight. Only recently have areas like Williamsburg, Long Island City and even Park Slope and points further south become expensive neighborhoods. Even the South Bronx — an area with a history of neighborhood problems but very quick transit access to Midtown — seems to be on the rise.
As part of their assessment of the Bloomberg Era, WNYC has taken to examining the changing demographics of New York City. We know it’s become very expensive to live here, and many members of the middle class are being priced out. But for those that stay, the changing nature of the city means longer commutes. For those that want to or need to stay but find themselves priced out of areas close to the city’s job centers, travel is taking up more and more time.
Jim O’Grady discussed this problem at length in the story I’ve embedded above, and he produced a short written companion piece:
During Mayor Bloomberg’s three terms, it became especially expensive to rent or buy a home in Manhattan and neighborhoods close to it. Over the last 10 years, most of the growth in commuting to well-paying jobs in Manhattan has occurred in Manhattan itself – and in places like Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Downtown and Brownstone Brooklyn.
That development has pushed some New Yorkers of limited means to neighborhoods further from Manhattan, where most of the jobs are located. And increasing numbers of New Yorkers are traveling within or between the outer boroughs to get to work, often using a Manhattan-centric transportation system that is not well suited to getting them where they need to go.
But Bloomberg supporter Mitchell Moss, an NYU professor of urban planning and a former adviser to the mayor, argues that the economic growth that is driving up real estate prices hasn’t displaced that many people. “No one was living in parts of Hunters Point, no one was living in parts of Lower Manhattan, no one was living in DUMBO,” Moss said. “Those areas have become, not gentrified, they’ve become populated.”
Even so, it will be the next mayor’s job to try and lower the number of New Yorkers who commute more than an hour each way to work – a problem Mayor Bloomberg, for all his success at adding transportation options to the city, couldn’t solve.
Along with this piece, WNYC produced a heat map of travel times within the city. We’ve seen similar maps before, but along with their coverage of the socioeconomic changes, it drives home the point that a zone fare system would be inherently unfair to many people who cannot afford to pay more or live closer to their job centers.
So how can the next mayor or city planners fix the problem of, displacement, access to jobs and disparity in housing? The easy answer is to say that we need a massive expansion of the subway system along with a serious network of real bus rapid transit lines that feed both Manhattan and other job centers. Economically, that may not be feasible without a massive realignment of interests in City Hall and Albany and better control of project costs on the part of the MTA.
In another vein, Josh Barro at Business Insider proposes a few other fixes focusing around urban policy. Upzoning residential neighborhoods and incentivizing developers to construct taller buildings with more housing stock near the city’s core along with an aggressive push toward eliminating parking minimums could help increase available housing and ideally lower rents through market forces. That’s a controversial plan from the start.
Likely, there isn’t a very good answer. New York City is a hot place to live right now, and time has become a very valuable commodity. It will remain expensive to live close to the areas featuring high-paying jobs, and the price creep — which is extending further and further away — will continue to push those without money toward the fringe and ever-increasing commutes.