Home Public Transit Policy Patiently waiting for longer commutes

Patiently waiting for longer commutes

by Benjamin Kabak

A shuttle sits outside of the Broad Channel station. Commutes from the Rockaways are among the longest in the nation. (Photo via flickr user Pro-Zak)

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.

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Sara Nordmann December 16, 2010 - 1:42 am

I am actually surprised that the nationwide average commute time is 25 min. I’d really think it would be less.

It takes me an average of 70 minutes to get to work, but I’m atypical even for a New Yorker. At 2:30 pm, I leave Carroll Gardens to go to my job near Brooklyn College, and I have to walk .8 mi to get to the train I need, or alternately take a bus then train, or two trains with some walking in between. Despite the fact that my commute is long, I’d rather do it on public transit than in a car because it allows me to read, write emails, etc.

AlexB December 16, 2010 - 4:29 pm

sucks about the b71, eh?

Shabazz Stuart December 16, 2010 - 1:46 am

Something that is a little harder to study would be the nature of the commute.

Being stuck in traffic day after day is very stressful. Finding parking is very stressful. I’m serious, study after study shows that this can be bad for your mental health, and your physical health over an extended routine.

Taking the train into work, if it’s the Subway or the regional rail is a completely different experience than driving to work.

I’m not saying that this invalidates the data, but it does complicate it a bit. Regardless of the average commute time, one would be hard pressed to say that the average commuting experience of a New Yorker was the same as a Los Angeleno

petey December 16, 2010 - 2:09 pm

“Being stuck in traffic day after day is very stressful. Finding parking is very stressful. Iā€™m serious”

i know it. once in my life i had a job to which i drove. i was not certain of the drive time, and not certain that there would be a parking spot at the end, and if there was it moved from day to day. this did not make for a happy experience. now i have a job i walk to. it’s a good thing.

Clarke December 16, 2010 - 4:32 pm

Running down the stairs to the subway, hoping that the F train you’re expecting to catch isn’t early (as if!) or that there hasn’t been some track issue that is leading to 30+ minute delays is not really a stressbuster, either. (Especially if you’re pulling this stunt at Lex/63rd…that’s one station that really needs slides.)

Terratalk December 18, 2010 - 5:11 pm

I almost missed this link … what a hysterical idea, perfect for Lex and 63rd (except you would need a “catcher” at the bottom”). Thanx for the laugh (and the brief memory of childhood slides). šŸ™‚

Unapologetically Mundane December 16, 2010 - 5:24 pm

Great point. I love to complain about my fellow passengers and that lovely wait-time sign on the L that sometimes says over 100 minutes ’til the next train, but I’d give almost anything not to have to worry about parallel parking for the rest of my life. And I get to read during my commute to boot.

Stephen Smith December 16, 2010 - 4:03 am

Just wanted to let you know that I posted my response to this article (mainly the last paragraph, though) at my blog, Market Urbanism: The problem with “public” transportation.

Joe December 16, 2010 - 5:20 pm

Your article wasn’t a response to the issue of long transit commutes. You attacked one line that Benjamin wrote to make another point about public vs private operated transit, and primarily on line construction, not train operation. It’s not relevant.

Andrew December 16, 2010 - 7:54 am

I think the common wisdom has cause and effect reversed. It’s not that transit increases commute times; it’s that people are willing to tolerate longer commute times on transit than in cars. (See the comments from Sara and Shabazz.)

What I think often confuses people is that cars can usually cover greater distances in less time than transit. That’s true, but when I go to work, my goal isn’t to travel 6 miles: it’s to get from where I live to where I work. If I drove to work, home and work would probably be more than 6 miles apart!

Steve December 16, 2010 - 10:15 am

Agreed. Todd Litman has done a fair amount of research on how people value their time on various transport modes: http://www.vtpi.org/tca/tca0502.pdf

That said, the idea that anyone would prefer transit is alien to people who don’t live in transit cities. That is, if you assume transit is dirty and scary (because that’s what you see in the movies) and your experience driving is usually traffic-free, then it’s hard to see who would want a long transit commute. This is one of the reasons Oklahoma doesn’t support any of the highway trust fund going to transit.

One other point: a lot of New Yorkers’ commute time is spent walking to and from transit stops. When I commute from Washington Heights to Morningside Heights, for example, I allocate about 25 minutes for the trip, but the actual time on a moving 1 train is only about 6 minutes. But the walk from my apartment to the subway platform can be 7-10 minutes and the walk from the platform to my destination can be another 5 or 6. As Alan Durning argues (http://daily.sightline.org/dai.....an-walking), time spent walking is time you would otherwise spend being dead, so in a sense, it shouldn’t count.

Ross December 16, 2010 - 8:02 am

Great piece, Ben. So the main point here is that we should just be happy with what we’ve got, right?

John December 16, 2010 - 9:24 am

The study is probably more of an argument for the ARC tunnel and a new downtown LIRR connection into Manhattan than it is anything else, since bridge and tunnel bottlenecks coming into Manhattan are far more severe than subway delays. And improved rail connections into the city would make the biggest difference on the “extreme” commuters, those living far enough out so that their trek to Manhattan can take up to two hours a day one-way. As long as the train is moving and not stuffed to the gills (and the heat/AC are working), sitting passively in a train on a commute doing anything from reading to working on your iPad is far less stressful than having to actively steer a car through rush-hour traffic, even if the train option requires an additional subway ride from the terminal.

Also, and coincidentally, the census study hit the news on the 70th anniversary of the opening of the IND Sixth Avenue subway, the last significant subway construction in Manhattan’s midtown area (the 63rd Street line helped commuter flow into the midtown business district a bit, but was more of just a tweak to the service patterns than a major change. And you can argue that — given the high cost in 1930s dollars that it took to weave the IND around the H&M/PATH tubes and between the LIRR and BMT tracks at Herald Square — the city never should have built the Sixth Avenue line until they completed the Second Avenue subway, which would have given better balance to the number of lines on the east and west sides of Manhattan and likely cost less per mile, allowing more trackage to be built, due to less surrounding infrastructure than on Sixth Avenue).

AlexB December 16, 2010 - 4:36 pm

It always seemed to make more sense to me that they should have built the IND on 9th Ave and 5th Ave instead of 8th and 6th. The crosstown should have been on 50th St instead of 53rd St. It would have been MUCH more useful that way.

Edward December 16, 2010 - 9:37 am

It’s funny that LA has the perception of being a traffic-choked nightmare when NYC has the absolute worst traffic and longest commutes in the country. Having spent much time in both LA and NYC, I can annecdotally say that driving in LA is an absolute joy compared to NYC. No bridges to cross, no tunnel chokepoints, highways that were actually built for modern cars, not Model T Fords. And no tollbooths to slow you down. It ain’t paradise, but I don’t get all mega-stressed like I do in NYC. Add to the fact that NYC drivers are the absolute worst I’ve ever seen (tailgating, not signalling for lane changes, doing 70mph in a 40mph zone, trying to barrel through crosswalks when pedestrians are in them…).

It’s a nightmare to drive in this town, which is why most of us put up with longer commutes via public transit. It takes me slightly longer than one hour to get from Staten Island to Midtown via ferry and subway, but I’m not nearly as stressed as when I drive in to Manhattan, which actually takes just as long (if not longer).

Bolwerk December 16, 2010 - 4:08 pm

I agree NYC’s car traffic sucks, but I wouldn’t say LA is exactly pristine. In fact, it’s downright bad. However, these average commutes are probably largely driven up by outliers – people who travel a long way to work in NYC. What this data ignores, or at least minimizes, are all the people who have a shorter commute because of NYC’s transit. NYC’s transit is, of course, far from perfect itself, but it makes possible a level of productivity not often found in other places.

A kind of wacky thing is it seems that the commuter rails, which brings hundreds of thousands of people in each day, are all American-average-or-worse commutes. The closer commutes are already 25 minutes or so to Grand Central, and that’s not counting trips to and from the train.

BTW, tollbooths probably speed you up in the end. If the routes were “free,” they’d be even more traffic-clogged.

Scott E December 16, 2010 - 3:01 pm

Another thing about public transportation, as Shabazz Stuart alluded to earlier, is that it is somewhat stress-free (when it works). You get on the train and don’t have to worry about overaggressive drivers, weaving around potholes and breakdowns, speed-traps, etc. You can sleep, read, or if you’re ambitious, work.

Another thing I’ve noticed about city-work versus suburb work is the schedules. Many professional jobs do not have strict 9-to-5 (or whatever) hours, and managers won’t hesistate to schedule a 1+ hour meeting for 4:30pm. In the city, it’s understood that there is a strict cutoff time when you walk out of the office shouting Yabba-Dabba-Doo, being sure to catch the 5:17 train.

Regarding the commute times in this post — are they one-way or round-trip?

Alon Levy December 16, 2010 - 10:58 pm


Sammy Finkelman December 16, 2010 - 8:43 pm

This census information is not new. It has been true for decades. I read this before.

Commuting *distances* are shorter in New York City than many places but commuting *times* are longer.

Very few people live near their work (unlike the case, for instance in North Dakota) amd it takeds time to get anywhere.

Alon Levy December 17, 2010 - 1:15 am

If you look at commute lengths for people who work in Manhattan, they’re even longer, at nearly 50 minutes (only about 30 for people who live in Manhattan, though). For such people, the difference in commute time between driving and transit is there, but is very small.

So I think the driving/transit commute time discrepancy is really about transit serving large, congested destinations better, rather than about how people value their commutes.


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