Manhattan-Centric Transit System Falls Short in Other Boroughs

The outer boroughs have more residents commuting within them than to Manhattan. But you wouldn't know it from looking at a map of New York City's transit network.

New York's transit network was designed in the early part of the last century to bring residents to the urban core and out again. Yet more people commute within the outer boroughs than from Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island or the Bronx to Manhattan. Roughly 1.7 million residents of the four outer boroughs commuted to jobs within those boroughs in 2010, an increase of 18% from a decade earlier. Fewer New Yorkers - about one million -- commuted to jobs from the outer boroughs to Manhattan, up 12% from 2010.

Today, Regional Plan Association released a study that examines the shortfalls in the bus, subway and commuter rail network in the boroughs outside Manhattan, and proposes numerous short- and long-term solutions to address these problems. The study, "Overlooked Boroughs: Where New York City's Transit Falls Short and How to Fix It," identified three core challenges for residents of the other boroughs: 

  • The subway is of limited use for travel within the boroughs.
  • Bus service in the boroughs is slow and infrequent, and many residents need to take two or more buses to reach their destination.
  • The metropolitan region’s vast commuter rail network could be far better utilized in the boroughs.

Residents of the outer boroughs sometimes need to take circuitous journeys through Manhattan in order to travel to work or school in another borough, adding significant time to their commutes. 

The report also found that the transit gap falls especially hard on lower-income households, who are less likely to own cars and rely heavily on mass transit for their daily commutes. Lower-income residents are more likely to work in sectors such as retail and health care, industries with jobs spread throughout the five boroughs. They also are less able to afford taxis, and have fewer service and retail options within walking distance than more affluent neighborhoods. And the higher cost of commuter rail service can be a barrier to residents who might otherwise look for reverse-commute jobs in the suburbs. 

“Much of the growth in jobs, homes and travel in the coming decades will take place outside Manhattan, but that growth won’t be sustainable unless we make some very significant changes to our transit system,” said Tom Wright, president of RPA. “Good transit access plays an enormous role in expanding opportunity to education and jobs. As New York works to foster a new supply of housing to meet surging demand, we need to think more broadly about how our transit network will accommodate the city’s needs well into the 21st century.”

“Overlooked Boroughs” was written by Jeffrey Zupan, RPA's senior fellow for transportation, and by Richard Barone, RPA’s director of transportation programs. The authors found that residents’ access to transit would be improved through a series of short- and longer-term measures, including:

  • Increase the frequency of bus service on dozens of outer-borough routes;
  • Run a 24-mile overground rail line running on an existing rail right-of-way from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, through Queens, to Co-Op City in the Bronx, to carry passengers directly from one outer borough to another.
  • Extend the Second Avenue subway both north to the Bronx and south to Lower Manhattan;
  • Expand Select Bus Service on an additional eight corridors, two in each borough except for Manhattan;
  • Speed bus service by implementing contactless fare payment, better traffic enforcement and other measures;
  • Increase off-peak and reverse commute service on Metro-North in the Bronx and the Long Island Rail Road in Queens;
  • Reduce weekday commuter rail fares for trips within New York City;
  • Add LIRR Main Line capacity in order to increase reverse commute service.

“Overlooked Boroughs” was written by Jeffrey Zupan, RPA's senior fellow for transportation, and by Richard Barone, RPA’s director of transportation programs. The report was made possible through the support of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Read the executive summary.
Read the full technical report.