Are Longer Commutes Driving the Young From New York?

The bad news spread through the train. The 7:35 p.m. Amtrak regional from New York to Washington on Dec. 13 would be late because of signal problems along the tracks. Every train north of Philadelphia, including New Jersey Transit ones, would have to lumber through each signal one at a time. The regional, which normally takes just over three hours to reach Washington, would take nearly six.

As housing prices and other higher living costs drive more New Yorkers to the suburbs and exurbs, transportation becomes all the more essential. But it’s going to be a long haul before the Northeast’s transportation grid, the most extensive of any North American region, rises to the challenge. In the meantime, more New Yorkers, the numbers suggest, will simply leave the Northeast altogether, partly because of the hassle of simply getting around.

Housing prices in much of the city have increased manifold in recent years. In Staten Island, the median price of a single-family home increased 101 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to the New York Association of Realtors. In Manhattan, the median apartment price increased 128 percent from 2000 through 2006, according to research firm Radar Logic.

Over 42 percent of the city’s homeowners with a mortgage spend at least 35 percent of monthly household income on housing costs, according to 2006 census estimates, and over 40 percent of renters do.

It’s little wonder more New Yorkers are exiting the city, opting for more affordable (for now) areas throughout Long Island and upstate New York, and down through New Jersey to Philadelphia and even points south. Such resettlement farther from work in the city means more strains on an already groaning transportation grid. And those strains translate into more hassles for commuters.

For instance, throughout the 1990’s, the number of commuters in the New York metropolitan area who commuted at least 45 minutes each way every weekday increased by more than 300,000; at the same time, the number who commuted 25 minutes or less declined by over 400,000, according to a November report by the Regional Plan Association on the Northeast’s transportation (the report’s underlying theme: things are bad and getting worse).

Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx had the longest commutes in the nation, according to a 2005 census survey of bigger U.S. counties. Over 5 percent of New York City commuters have what the census ominously labels extreme commutes—ones of at least an hour and a half each way daily.

If such commutes are by car or bus, that’s bad enough. If they’re by train, that’s really bad.

The RPA report concluded that Amtrak’s Northeast corridor—the train system’s main revenue source, with almost 40 percent of its nationwide ridership in 2006—would need over $5 billion in repairs just to bring it to a “state of good repair.” New Jersey Transit railroad would need $6 billion, according to an earlier RPA report.

Meanwhile, the region’s only answer to the European and Japanese high-speed trains, Amtrak’s Acela, remains expensive and dodgy service-wise—even, according to The Wall Street Journal in August, as ridership increases because of increasingly inconvenient air travel.

The last time this reporter took the Acela, a mild rain and ice patches dragged the trip from its touted three hours-plus (from Boston to New York) to more than five hours. If the Acela—which is supposed to reach a maximum speed of 150 mph, but usually averages half that—does ever consistently break the three-hour mark, it could make a significant difference to air travelers in the Northeast. Three hours, according to the RPA, is the threshold at which a lot of travelers choose rail over air.

Until then (and until the repairs and the sleeker travel times and the other improvements necessary for moving millions back and forth more smoothly each day), the longer commutes to the city from farther-flung cheaper locales will continue to become so tedious and frustrating that …

… that maybe the city’s young and brightest will simply split. In this decade of mild population growth, many younger people with college degrees have been leaving New York—and, more often than not, the Northeast altogether.

About two-thirds of the 190,150 people ages 25 to 64 who left New York in 2005 moved beyond the city’s metropolitan area, according to a September analysis of census data by City Comptroller Bill Thompson. And of this two-thirds, over 47,100 moved to North Carolina, Florida and Georgia (and 8,400 to California). The rest stayed in or near the Northeast, including Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C.

“[T]hose who leave appear to be younger, better educated and slightly more affluent,” Mr. Thompson’s report read.

Do they leave because of the longer commutes, because signal trouble on a New Jersey railroad track might turn a half-hour commute into an hour-and-a-half one, because Amtrak raised its monthly fare passes 59 percent in 2005? No one knows for sure. But the longer commutes can’t possibly help the city.

Nevertheless, there’s cause for hope. The RPA report notes that people still, somewhat inexplicably, “want to live in” New York. And Comptroller Thompson notes that many of those sticking it out here are solidly middle class (for Gotham anyway), living in households earning between $60,000 and $140,000 annually.

When that Dec. 13 Amtrak regional pulled into Washington’s Union Station shortly after 1:30 on Dec. 14, the D.C. subway was literally closed—a forbidding iron gate clamped to the concrete and only darkness behind it. Weary commuters had to line up in the cold for the chance to be exploited at the end of a 45-minute cab wait.

In New York, a late train arrival wouldn’t have been a problem: The city’s always open. If you can get there.

Are Longer Commutes Driving the Young From New York?