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New York City's Changing Economic Landscape

Samuel Staley
March 25, 2011, 8:17am

For most people outside of New York City, Manhattan is the iconic image of the urban life. An insightful article at NewGeography.com by David Giles, however, points to the organic complexity of this city. Manhattan has been losing jobs and commuting has become more diverse and dynamic as the outer boroughs have become more economically vibrant. Commuting between and within the outerboroughs has risen dramatically. As Giles notes:

One big reason for this shift in commuter patterns is New York’s changing economic landscape. For decades Manhattan has been steadily losing its share of jobs to the other four boroughs, but over the last ten years that process has sped up considerably. From 2000 to 2009, New York City lost a net 41,833 jobs, but that was because of the huge concentration of losses in Manhattan during 2008 (over 100,000 in that single year). Every other borough saw a net increase in jobs during that period. Queens saw 2.4 percent growth, Staten Island 4.6 percent growth and the Bronx and Brooklyn 7.7 and 7.9 percent growth, respectively.

One implication is that transit investments need to focuse less on borough to Manhattan trips and more on building these connections between the boroughs. Increasingly long commutes are constraining the labor market and limiting productivity. Yet, transit investments haven't recognized this diversification of trip origins and destinations.

Giles concludes his essay:

New York’s biggest investments in transit are still almost entirely focused on Manhattan commuters. Tens of billions of dollars are being invested in what amounts to an extension of the Q train along Second Avenue, a new Long Island Railroad tunnel to Grand Central, a one stop extension of the number 7 train on the west side, and a Santiago Calatrava-designed Fulton Street Station in lower Manhattan. A new Moynihan Station on 34th Street is apparently next on the agenda. These projects may spawn billions more in lucrative real estate deals, but they don’t reflect the city’s true economic geography.

A lack of transit investments in the outer boroughs might be understandable if these new outer borough jobs were spread out evenly over a large territory, but a huge percentage are located in relatively dense clusters. Over 20,000 commuters descend on the SUNY Downstate and Kings County Medical Campuses — right across the street from each other —every morning, for example. But very little has been done to facilitate commutes to that area, and many employees and patients depend on a dizzying array of livery cabs and dollar vans to get them where they’re going. Similarly, JFK airport in Queens is home to over 55,000 jobs; Hunts Point in the Bronx 20,000; the Sunset Park waterfront in Brooklyn 32,000, and so on.

Making much needed investments in service and upgrades to the bus system may not be as sexy as a new train terminal in Midtown. But if New York is going to sustain job growth and retain a truly world-class transit system, then it will have to start looking beyond Manhattan and invest in solutions that make commutes to job centers in the outer boroughs easier for residents.

Giles's insights track well with many of the observations we make about regional travel patterns in Mobilty First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century, which also has a chapter on New York and its changing travel landscape.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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