New York Is Car Town!

Contrary to popular belief, New Yorkers drive in droves.

Since the 1920’s, more people have been driving into midtown and lower Manhattan every weekday than have been taking buses, ferries, regional trains, trams and bicycles combined. Only the subway brings more people into Manhattan below 60th Street on a typical weekday.

It’s little wonder, then, that the Bloomberg administration has targeted traffic reduction through congestion pricing in its 25-year plan for the city.

A study by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, using city Department of Transportation data, concluded that since 1924, “autos, taxis, vans and trucks [have] continued to be the second most-dominant transportation mode in the central business district behind the subway system.”

This despite the near-epic congestion in the decades following World War II, when commute times, especially from the rapidly developing far reaches of the outer boroughs, started doubling, then tripling. A concerted effort by the city and the state since the early 1980’s to expand public mass transit and repair and maintain existing mass-transit infrastructure didn’t dent the number of drivers. Even massive increases at the gas pumps, toll bridges and, of course, parking garages have failed to dissuade New Yorkers from driving cars into midtown.

Most people who drive into Manhattan below 60th Street do so despite having ready access to mass transit, according to a survey out last week by the business-booster group Partnership for New York City, which supports the congestion-pricing plan.

Fewer than 5 percent of commuters from the five boroughs drive to work below 60th Street; of these commuters, 83 percent drive because, well, they want to.

The survey, conducted in late March and early April, found that 66 percent of drivers from Brooklyn and Queens drive into midtown and downtown Manhattan every weekday, even though they know mass transit would be as fast or faster.

During a typical fall weekday in 1932, nearly 20 percent of all commuters to areas of Manhattan below 60th Street were driving, either in taxis, their own cars or trucks, or vans, according to the transportation council; 65 percent took the subway; and a paltry 15 percent commuted by other modes, like ferries and city buses.

Jump past the Great Depression and the Second World War, into that boom era of highway building in and around New York City spearheaded by Robert Moses. With hundreds of new miles of roadway and gigantic bridges like the Verrazzano Narrows, the percentages of commuters driving (or being driven) into the city’s main business district only increased—despite commute times increasing in tandem.

In 1948, one-quarter of commuters into the business district took private cars, including taxis. In 1963, that percentage was virtually the same. In 1978, another 15 years later, the percentage had leapt to 32.3 percent, and by 1993 it was even higher, at nearly 34 percent. By 2004, about one-third of commuters drove below 60th Street on a typical fall business day.

The fact that driving is such an old habit for New York makes the Mayor’s plan to charge commuters $8 for driving below 86th Street all the more ambitious. Let’s just say that if it doesn’t reduce traffic, it could make a lot of money.

Exempting the cost of gasoline and any tolls, most people who drive into midtown and downtown pay nothing for parking once they’re there. Many are reimbursed; others (about one-fifth) park in non-metered spaces, according a January survey by Schaller Consulting.

“It’s not as expensive as you would think,” said Bruce Schaller, principal of Schaller Consulting. “Most people who drive into Manhattan don’t pay for parking. Congestion pricing is giving everybody the signal that it’s going to cost you something.”

That is, if people come far enough into the central Manhattan business areas. As Mr. Schaller and others point out, the Mayor’s plan wouldn’t charge those passing through the areas—those drivers, say, who come over the East River bridges and merge onto the F.D.R. Drive on their way to New Jersey or Staten Island. As many as 40 percent of commuters who drive south of 60th Street are just passing through, said Mr. Schaller, who supports the Mayor’s plan.

Given this reality, and given New Yorkers’ historical fondness for driving into midtown and downtown, congestion pricing in the borough may become but one step in a larger plan—say, one that lasts 25 years or so?

Illustration by Nigel HolmesIllustration by Nigel Holmes

New York Is Car Town!