What Suburban Poverty? Redux

Earlier this week, I wrote about the incomes of commuters, looking at the incomes of people who commute to the central business districts of six American cities by distance from the center. Contrary to the story of drive-until-you-qualify, in which incomes drop as one moves farther out, in fact incomes tend to rise with commute distance. I was asked by many people in comments and on Twitter, what about the general public, and not just commuters?

The answer is that the answer changes but not by much. The model remains that of the poverty donut, in which people within a certain distance from city center, between 5 and 20 km depending on city size, are poorer than people in both the innermost radius and people who live in the suburbs farther out.

As before, we use data from OnTheMap, which slices jobs by income brackets, of which the highest is $40,000 or more per year in wages. This does not take unemployment or non-wage income into account, but usually these amplify existing inequalities in wages.

Here’s the same table as in the last post, with counts of employed residents and the share of $40,000+ workers within the same radii from the same point as before, without the restriction that people work in the CBD:

CityNew YorkLos AngelesChicagoWashingtonSan FranciscoBoston
PointGrand Central7th/Metro CenterMadison/StateFarragutMarket/2ndDTX
0-5 km680,133203,820176,979177,312222,134219,045
40k+ %67.6%33%68.6%66.4%69.2%58.7%
5-10 km1,123,426506,084342,255297,723239,994379,292
40k+ %50.1%34.7%48%53%57.6%53.5%
10-15 km1,335,294627,797468,107342,649261,568274,212
40k+ %41.5%40.7%39.3%50.6%57.3%58.8%
15-20 km1,114,743736,561368,022306,101248,715223,600
40k+ %45.5%44.3%44.4%51.8%55.8%57.9%
20-30 km1,289,3641,220,414539,332485,355367,591384,671
40k+ %51.8%44.2%47.6%56.6%58.4%57.9%
30-40 km905,2541,020,080630,250551,093469,556387,372
40k+ %57.1%44.9%49.3%53.7%60.3%54.8%
40-50 km753,040754,717633,381478,307377,010377,544
40k+ %55.8%45.9%51.1%56.3%63.7%53.9%
50-60 km623,786632,476554,520435,857405,328421,248
40k+ %55.7%49.6%47.4%47.2%62.5%51.8%
60-70 km535,991405,516399,769410,554498,840434,048
40k+ %55.6%50.2%49.8%48.8%58.8%45.8%
70-80 km484,356518,270189,540232,985410,047402,805
40k+ %54.9%46.5%48.7%51.2%54.4%47.9%


A few valuable footnotes to the table above:

  1. In Boston, the innermost 3 km radius, comprising such neighborhoods as Back Bay, there are 98,691 residents of whom 66.4% earn at least $40,000 a year, but the 5 km level of granularity doesn’t quite see that because the city is smaller than the others. So the swoosh model seen in New York and Washington still holds.
  2. The 50-60 km and 60-70 km annuli around Washington include most of Baltimore, so they are poor once we strip the requirement that people work in the District. They do not show suburban poverty, but urban poverty in a city that, far from getting the transportation investment Massachusetts is putting into the Gateway Cities, had a subway line canceled by a popular moderate Republican governor for what’s almost certainly racist reasons.
  3. The situation in the Bay Area is the reverse of that of Washington. The 40-50 km and 50-60km annuli are wealthy because they happen to include wealthy communities on the Peninsula whose suburban status is awkward, having been both wealthy commuter suburbs of San Francisco and more recently Silicon Valley edge cities with many tech jobs.

What’s going on in Los Angeles?

All other cities on the table have poverty donuts, poorer than both the city core and the suburbs. But in Los Angeles, the $40,000+ share grows nearly monotonically as distance from the CBD increases. The 5 km radius from the center, which in New York comprises the Upper East and West Sides and in Chicago comprises the North Side and the gentrifying parts of the Near South Side, is the poorest group in Los Angeles. It consists of neighborhoods that are not particularly wealthy, like Boyle Heights, Filipinotown, and Koreatown.

The broader question is, how come those neighborhoods have not gentrified the way their counterparts in other American cities did?

The answer to this question has to be that Los Angeles is very weak-centered. The other five cities all have strong CBDs, which means the middle class is willing to pay extra to live near their centers. In Los Angeles, employment in the CBD is weaker, so fewer people of means try to concentrate there.

Place-based policy for commuters

Despite the fact that people who live 50 km from city center are noticeably poorer than people who live 50 km and work at city center, there’s an impulse to focus on rush-hour commuter transportation at this range. This can include highway widening, or commuter rail that is so peak-focused it’s essentially a highway widening, interfacing with the suburban road and parking network but not with any urban public transportation.

Even though the people such policy helps are better-off than most, governments still sell it as a social justice measure that would promote equity. The error here is that while people in (say) New Bedford are poorer than average, the local notables who decide what the New Bedford agenda is are richer than average, and they want to be able to say that they steered spending to the area in order to feel more important.

It’s an awkward situation in which money is wasted on grounds of both efficiency and equality. The local notables are on the wealthy side, like the CBD-bound commuters, but they’re a distinct group with mostly local ties, so they understand the needs of regional rail even worse than 9-to-5 commuters as as class do. So the money is wasted, and it’s wasted in a way that increases inequality rather than decreasing it.

Job access for the working class

The best place for job access for the working class remains city center. In Los Angeles, this is direct from the data: for all the talk about drive-until-you-qualify exurbs in the Inland Empire, incomes there remain higher than in East LA or South Central. But this is true even in the other cities, for two distinct reasons.

In some cities, like Chicago, there is notable directionality – that is, there is a favored quarter (the North Side) and an ill-favored one (the South Side). Job suburbanization generally goes in the direction of the favored quarter because that is where corporate management lives. In Washington, Amazon decided to build HQ2 in the direction of the favored quarter, in Virginia, and offered the ill-favored quarter, the lower middle-class Prince George’s County, a lower-end warehousing job center. This situation seems universal or nearly so: in Paris most job suburbanization goes to the western favored quarter, in Tel Aviv it goes to the northern favored quarter, and so on.

But not all cities have much directionality. New York doesn’t – go in any direction outside the Manhattan core and you’ll find poverty, whether it’s in Harlem, Corona, Bed-Stuy, Jersey City, or Bergen Hill, and go further and you’ll find reasonable levels of comfort.

That said, in New York, off-center jobs are awfully inaccessible. Creating more jobs in Harlem would be great for working-class black and Hispanic job seekers in the area, but would not be very accessible from Brooklyn or Hudson County. Even access from the Bronx may be compromised by East Side vs. West Side divisions: how much access does the South Bronx get to Uptown Manhattan’s biggest job center, Columbia?

What’s more, plans for decentralizing jobs in the New York region don’t focus on Harlem or Jersey City, just as plans in Washington go to Fairfax County and not PG County. The PennDesign plan for high-speed rail, dubbed North Atlantic Rail, calls for a job center on Long Island called Nassau Center, in a homogeneously comfortable part of the region.

So in all cases, keeping jobs as concentrated in city center as possible, and allowing the CBD to organically expand into nearby areas, ensures the best job access for everyone, but this is disproportionately helpful for lower-income workers. There just isn’t enough suburban poverty writ large to justify any deurbanization of job geography on equity grounds.


  1. Matthew Hutton

    If transit is worth $50k per weekday rider then I see why they cancelled red not purple as purple is pretty close to the $50k figure. Especially if they thought the red tunnelling was underpriced – even if the reasoning was wrong.

    • john

      Hogan’s official excuse, shared by at least some other expert/offical opponents (including future Mayor Catherine Pugh), popular opponents outside the Red Line’s corridor, and some urbanist critics, was that the Red Line tunnels were actually overpriced, especially with the main one just two blocks at closest from an existing, underused Metro Subway tunnel. Of course we all learned very quickly that the money “saved” was redistributed to road projects in white communities that voted for Hogan. Much of the opposition along the corridor came from 1) local activists frustrated with big projects decided by outsiders and worried about gentrification, who got very little attention outside their own activist, artist, and neighborhood circles; and 2) a bunch of white people in gentrified Canton who got much more attention squealing loudly about “crime” and “bad elements” (code for black riders from West Baltimore) and nonsense about the surface segment on Boston Street obstructing waterfront views (for seconds at a time at any given spot as the train went by every 5-10 minutes, on a street mostly walled off from the water by development). Joke’s on them; they got their wish for cancellation, and crime in Canton (still low by Baltimore standards) went up anyway, b/c transit and the riders it brings don’t increase crime and lack of transit doesn’t prevent it, but unemployment and poverty (in surrounding neighborhoods) does increase crime, and a shift from corrupt abusive policing to semi-absent policing (as much of BPD in 2015 chose to do while denying they were doing any such thing) doesn’t actually help.

      My own ideal preference would be for new east-west (and northeast, southeast, and southwest) rapid transit here to be extensions and branches of the existing Metro Subway, whose expensive center-city tunnel already exists and has the capacity for 2 minute headways (design capacity supposedly 90-second headways, but with branches and my own experience, as a subway commuter, of MTA’s operational/managerial skills I’ll err on the side of a little more caution/schedule-cushion. They also need to build another crossover or two in West Baltimore, and more crossovers on any new extensions than the current line has, to allow for better operational flexibility around both scheduled major construction and surprise emergencies). New north-south lines should probably be Stadtbahn light-rail to minimize tunneling, unless we can actually get down to or below German transit-construction costs before 2030. I think we can get down to German costs by 2030 (in most of the U.S.), but that will take a whole lot of public outreach/persuasion and political and bureaucratic battling against an array of transit/urban-hostile NIMBYs & politicians, change-hostile agency officials, and contractors/consultants profiting from the status-quo, so getting lower than current German costs will likely take us past 2030 to achieve without a spectacular breakthrough I’m skeptical of ever seeing.

      Anyhow, I didn’t expect that ideal to happen anytime soon, the Red Line was what was on the table and pre-Hogan looked like a certainty, so I supported it, with the thought that it could be made more useful and cost-effective with branches at either end: east on Eastern Avenue (underground as far as Bayview Med. Ctr), southeast off of that down Dundalk Ave, and at the other end southwest to Catonsville/Ellicott City and northwest to Sinai Hospital up streets made wide by an old streetcar corridor. Still a good idea I think in the unlikely event it is resurrected post-Hogan.

      And now I’ve rambled on too long, and very much at a tangent to the original post…

      • Eric2

        I think that like any US city of its size, what Baltimore needs is not another rail line on any ROW, but more frequent bus service throughout the city. Plus upgrading both of the existing suburban rail corridors to DC for frequent electrified service.

        • Bobson Dugnutt

          Baltimore did a bus route redesign. The frequent services have colors for line names. The minor success out of it was that ridership declined less severely than the previous routing plan. Ridership gains were probably mostly on Saturday and Sunday.

          • Eric2

            The idea is that they should run their buses every 10 minutes, not every 20 minutes (or whatever) so that the service becomes much more useful.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            Is Baltimore’s standard of frequency 20 minutes? Sad! I was trying to pull up a color line schedule from Maryland MTA but its website keeps crashing my browser. A buggy website is apropos for an agency that boasts of 20-minute service as frequent lol.

            The Baltimore Sun did a report after the route redesign (Streetsblog had a similar writeup and follow-up) and found that the reliability on the frequent color lines was the worst in the system. There were bunched buses and several missed runs. Apparently, MMTA has an absenteeism problem like San Francisco Muni. And really, if your buses are bunching at 20-minute headways you are a lost cause as an agency.

          • Eric2

            20 minutes was just a guess and I’m sure it depends on the line.

          • Taylor Willis

            20 minutes is roughly correct for off-peak and weekend headways on color routes, unfortunately. You get 10 minutes during rush hour for the most part which is still not great.

        • Lee Ratner

          In the United States at least, more people find rail transit more comfortable than bus transit even though buses might make more economic sense.

          • RossB

            In Baltimore, way more people ride the bus than the train. The subway and light rail combined carry around 60,000. About 270,000 ride the bus. Imagine if the bus system was actually good.

          • Luke

            I mean, for the U.S., people prefer rail over buses as much as anything because as far as most people are concerned, buses are for poor people. At this point in time, rail systems in cities that aren’t basically dead have a prestige element for them such that TOD is fairly common and housing prices near them are often higher than average. Of course, in the grand scheme, it’s really public transit that’s for poor people, and just that within that, rail>buses. Trying to get people to de-autocentrize (new word alert) is the hardest part of the conversation in the U.S.; everything else is more or less moot at this point.

          • Eric2

            I don’t think you can meaningfully de-autocentrize the US by building new rail. The land use patterns do not allow it.

            As for changing land use: If you build your rail line in poor areas, there will be little market pressure for TOD (due to crime concerns). If you build in rich areas, NIMBYs will try their best to prevent TOD. Even if you defeat the NIMBYs, new rail is expensive, so little will be built and the walkshed will hold few people even at TOD densities.

            When you improve the bus system, though, the entire city or region is within your walkshed for the same price. Sure the riders will be weighted towards the poor, but they are also the ones who need transit the most. You still have the hard problem of upzoning a large area despite NIMBY opposition, but at least this is only a NIMBY issue, not a NIMBY and construction cost issue.

          • Lee Ratner

            I lived in the transit rich by US standards most of my life. Rail does seems to get more people to abandon their cars when built in the right city or metropolitan area. It isn’t just the association with poverty that makes Americans prefer rail over buses. Its the fact that bus routes are easier to mess with than rail routes, this is true for public transit and privately operated buses, and one thing that everybody wants in transit is reliability in both service frequency and route. The other issue is how people behave. The general perception is that people behave better on trains, meaning that they keep quiet and mind their own business, than buses. This wasn’t an issue in NYC but in San Francisco, there seems to be more frequent bad behavior on buses. People will play loud music or behave in other manner that makes the ride unpleasant for other riders.* Offering at least a semi-pleasant ride is important for getting people on buses and other forms of transit.

            *A few weeks ago I was on the bus going to my brothers place. There were two old men on the bus. One white and one black. They were talking about how twenty somethings and teens misbehave these days because they weren’t disciplined properly as kids like they were. The white old man than started ranting on how Biden was going to make us Communist like Mao’s China because universal healthcare is bad. Then he started making inappropriate comments about a young couple. At this point a young woman had enough and started yelling at both of them for being disgusting. While an extreme incident, these things are not uncommon in San Francisco. You need to offer a commute in relative peace to get people on transit.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Eric2, bus system improvements (in ridership or productivity gains over inputs in service span, frequency or speed) are usually realized when the service is terrible and improves. If you have an hourly bus that runs every 30 minutes, ridership can be expected to more than double making the service expansion worthwhile, or running Sunday or late-night service when none was available establishes a great baseline.

            Now doubling service from 30 minutes to 15, ridership will increase but not double. If you have a bus line with 10 minute or more frequent service, riders know it’s so frequent that they’re not planning their lives around a schedule. So a doubling from 15 to 7-8 minutes might stop attracting ridership and just thin out crowding along the line.

            One of the recent examples of an area that did see increased bus ridership from increased bus service was, of all places, Phoenix. There’s a regional transit system called Valley Metro but every member city is responsible for funding service within their borders. Phoenix passed a sales tax increase for transit, with the long term goal of extending its light rail. The more immediate improvement was expansion of bus service hours to get them to run to midnight, add 15 minute service to 30 minute lines and make hourly services half-hourly. It worked well, especially on Sundays when a lot of buses ran hourly. Saturdays saw a more modest increase, but weekday ridership stayed flat apart from the lengthening of the service day.

          • Eric2

            @Lee Ratner

            The Bay Area seems to have unique problems of public mental illness. I’ve only visited their briefly and I already have stories of transit misbehavior which match those of cities I lived in for years.

            @Bobson Dugnutt

            “bus system improvements (in ridership or productivity gains over inputs in service span, frequency or speed) are usually realized when the service is terrible and improves. ”

            That is not clear – this analysis does not make that distinction. In any case, transit in most of the US already qualifies as “terrible”.

          • Henry Miller

            Bus in US cities are for two groups: the poor, and the upper upper middle class who work downtown. The poor have been discussed a lot here. However many not just below rich people are riding the bus downtown as a subsided ride to work. If your job/company isn’t rich enough to afford downtown office space, then the bus system doesn’t work for you (nor would a rail system, but rail isn’t appropriate for these low-density jobs)

            You often see a difference in service for the two groups. the downtown crowd needs peak service and demands nice bus shelters. the poor need all day service, but are stuck with whatever the system gives them.

          • Lee Ratner

            @Eric2, the public mental health issues don’t help but plenty of clearly mentally healthy people do not behave well on transit in San Francisco. Most of the people blaring their music on portable sound systems, these are basically speakers that they can carry with them and attach their device too, do not seem especially mentally ill. The two old men just seemed to be old and very conservative but not mentally ill.

          • Henry


            > I don’t think you can meaningfully de-autocentrize the US by building new rail. The land use patterns do not allow it.

            > As for changing land use: If you build your rail line in poor areas, there will be little market pressure for TOD (due to crime concerns). If you build in rich areas, NIMBYs will try their best to prevent TOD. Even if you defeat the NIMBYs, new rail is expensive, so little will be built and the walkshed will hold few people even at TOD densities.

            On the contrary, the city and suburbs can often channel new growth into dense corridors if the political will allows. Exhibit A of this is Seattle, which is currently building out its light rail system; a good chunk for the past two decades has been channeled into areas around existing and future transit nodes (P&Rs that eventually get turned into light rail stops), and even the suburbs here now allow mid-rise (~20 story) development. Malls are a particular bright spot; many are reaching the end of their design lifespan, there’s significantly less demand for mall retail, and the sea of parking generally both provides land that can be built on in phases while providing enough buffer from NIMBYs likely to complain. They also tend to be sited at major crossroads and they are usually already suburban transit hubs for buses given their status as one of the few concentrated places of jobs and shops.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Eric2, true that most transit qualifies as terrible when it comes to span, frequency or speed. One big issue that is difficult to surmount is when it comes to un-sucking a bus system, like to offer a service expansion, is that the money primarily gets shoveled into pre-existing operating costs.

            Think about this when you see a bus vs. rail transit investment decision. The debate is unhelpful, for one reason because the money expended will go to different things. Building a rail line is primarily a capital expense; you are paying now for something to be delivered into the future. It goes without saying that upon delivery, the capital costs will become an operating cost just like running a bus. The planning of a rail line should ideally result in a comparable benefit to riders or the system, in either time saved, ridership gained, or operating costs lowered.

            Bus and rail already running are primarily operating costs; you are paying now for resources you used in the past. You can’t give your employees the hours back they spent delivering service. You can’t unburn the fuel used to move the bus. A vehicle deteriorates the more it is used. And so on.

            While more bus service is more desirable, the biggest hurdle is not buying the buses or building out a yard. It’s paying for the expanded service year in and year out.

            There’s also the matter of vehicle productivity, which is another complex matter entirely and is lost on the public.

          • Eric2

            @Henry, I don’t think even Seattle is a good example. It is very geographically constrained and also has a fast-growing population and tech economy, factors which encourage building density in any city. Also, most of the new dense development seems to have been in places like South Lake Union that are *not* served by light rail (and no, I don’t think the SLUT counts as serious transit). Meanwhile I don’t think *any* density has been built around the existing light rail line. New density is planned for the Bellevue/Redmond extension, but that corridor was pretty dense even beforehand.

            @Bobson Dugnutt, while I haven’t run the numbers, my feeling is that expanded bus service has more social and transit benefit per dollar than building new rail lines at US costs (except in the largest cities). The system is skewed by the fact that the federal government will shower money on you for construction but not operations, leading to the building of low value infrastructure. It shouldn’t be that way.

          • michaelrjames


            my feeling is that expanded bus service has more social and transit benefit per dollar than building new rail lines at US costs (except in the largest cities).

            Again, missing the forest for the trees!
            The trouble with that attitude is it leads exactly to the situation the US has. Not just a paucity of rail transit but poor bus service too. As I’ve said many times on this blog, contrary to econocrat’s beliefs, buses are the most expensive form of mass (not-so-rapid) transit. The reason is that, just as Eric2 advocates, building transit around buses means delaying building the only thing that works for cities beyond a certain size, which in the end leads to massive cost. Or it leads to increasing transport disfunction, not to mention eco-destruction and the inestimable real costs into the future of endless sprawl. This is austerity tactics without even the tiniest bit of strategic planning. It is self-fulfilling failure–does one really need any more than the past 70 years of such policy in the US? Or to compare it to alternatives almost anywhere else in the developed world? Not only does the bus tactic not work (on any criterion but try %commutes) but it causes the cost craziness in building rail transit because there is so little constructed …

            It is so dire and has become a diabolical chicken-egg problem. Interesting to see what Buttigieg will do but this is not something to be solved in one term or by one politician. Like so many of the nation’s problems its cause is deep within the minds of its citizens as Eric2 amply demonstrates.

          • Lee Ratner

            Buses are also the preferred transit solution of the libertarian urbanist sort because they can be run by private companies more easier than rail transit, so that naturally makes them better.

          • michaelrjames

            @Lee Ratner: “Lee Ratner
            Buses are also the preferred transit solution of the libertarian urbanist sort because they can be run by private companies more easier than rail transit …”

            Yep, I was in Oxford to see what happened after Thatcher deregulated the buses. It was mayhem particularly in small towns with ancient road systems like Oxford. At first there were far more operators than sustainable but this coincided with loose finance so it was all debt fueled and followed by some wild M&A activity, including of the privatised national bus networks, as a few tried to become a dominant national operator. I don’t know if it lowered fares (everything is more expensive in the UK but there is a limit to how expensive bus fares can be) or even improved service but one consequence was that Oxford main street, Cornmarket St, became a super-polluted congested strip even though it was notionally pedestrian (at least no private cars).

          • Henry

            @Eric2: SLU took some population growth but a good chunk of it has also been places like Capitol Hill and UW/U District, which was on the second light rail phase and literally doubled ridership of the light rail overnight. The lack of super-high dense development along the southern end of the route has more to do with the fact that these areas were historically underinvested and there was at least some deliberate (and futile) effort to avoid gentrification, but there has been modest development (on the scale of empty lots and SFH -> townhouses and 5 over 1 developments).

            As far as the future light rail lines, there’s also lots of investment in U District (http://www.dailyuw.com/news/article_0f72255e-52bc-11ea-a5b4-ff1c2e79ee94.html), the former Northgate Mall (https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/exclusive-first-look-at-the-future-of-northgate-and-nhl-seattle-headquarters/281-70a4b0bf-e3ec-40e3-be76-9bdf4b93451b), Lynwood’s Alderwood Mall with developments as high as 18 stories (https://www.heraldnet.com/business/18-story-building-will-house-lynnwoods-next-generation/) and pretty much all ST2 and ST3 stations in the north will be receiving developments like this.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Eric2, there’s no general accounting or economic rule that proves bus service has a greater benefit than a rail service. The determination of what counts as a benefit is inherently political. A dry cost-benefit analysis can inform a decision, but abiding by it requires political consensus. If a cost-benefit analysis shows buses to be more beneficial, but if the public won’t support a tax to pay for the bus service, the point is moot.

            A basic economic and accounting principle, absent specific numbers, is that operations and capital costs trade off. A high operation cost system tends to have relatively low capital expenditures. To tie up current money in capital expenditures, it must demonstrate an operating cost savings over its service life.

            Apart from that, a bus expansion vs. rail expansion requires some real-world operating figures for your analysis. You have to find out things such as the unit cost of service per mile/km and hour, compensation figures for drivers and maintenance workers, vehicle costs and land costs. You should also find out the productivity of the current bus and train system.

            If there is a decision to build or expand a train service over expanded bus service, the monetary and productivity figures should show an operations advantage for the train despite its high capital cost. If a train line is designed to follow the prevailing direction of bus ridership, it will likely attract a ridership that makes it more productive and less costly than the buses it competes with. If a train line, say 10 miles long, parallels 3 bus lines in the same direction and they are some of the busiest in the system, there are several benefits: The train will have a higher overall ridership than one or maybe even all three lines; the train will be more productive (a bus driver promoted to train conductor can move more passengers than two or more bus drivers, or one train does the work of two or more buses at the same level of frequency, or a train can complete the route more quickly than the bus); the train produces an operational savings that will allow service-hours to be redistributed (high-ridership bus lines become unreliable at high frequencies, and high-frequency services consume so much hours that they take away resources from areas where a train doesn’t make sense but expanded bus service would be affordable).

        • john

          Taylor Willis is correct: The color routes and a handful of numbered routes are supposed to run every 10 minutes peak, 15 minutes off-peak (less often overnight), but delays and bunching (and the absenteeism Bobson noted, which I remember the reporting on in 2016) have been an issue from the start, and service has been reduced in the pandemic. The many numbered lines that ill-serve most of the City and the County suburbs run anywhere from 20-minute to hourly headways, way too little.

          @Eric2: More and better bus service is necessary, but not sufficient. In a city (Census Bureau urbanized area) that stretches the population of Vienna or Brussels (2.2 million in 2010) over the acreage (717 m2/1857 km2) of Greater London (606 m2/1,569 km2)–plus a higher baseline density today (3,073 ppl/m2, or 1,186 ppl/km2)*, and politically-realistic prospects of higher future density, than most American cities–bus improvements alone won’t cut it. Real, sustained bus improvements (frequency, span, reliability, safety/cleanliness, MTA communication, etc.) will make a big difference to current riders and to many specific neighborhoods, and boost ridership a bit in neighborhoods served, but will only make a modest at best difference to the city as a whole and a marginal difference to its future course. More rail will be needed (unless we decide we’re okay with stagnating or shrinking).

          But buses first, absolutely, because we need them, today, regardless of any other plans or dreams or future speculations; they can be deployed quicker, cheaper and more widely than any rail expansion with less political contention or risk of project-abandonment; and we need and deserve better than what we’ve got, and better than waiting around ’til 2025 or later (earliest any rail could plausibly start construction at this point). Real bus improvements should have been center of discussion 25+ years ago, preliminary to any rail-plan and not as an afterthought, and appear to be the center of the new regional transit plan being developed now. But we still need a decent rail-plan, too.

          *Average density masks significant clustering of higher density inside the I-695 beltway and along or near some suburban stroads with potential for redevelopment and more transit, like York Road, Eastern Boulevard, Reisterstown Road, US 1 and Ritchie Highway. Which means plenty of places where first bus, then later in some cases rail, investments can be targeted to get more ridership/more people served, and development can be targeted there, without worrying about or waiting around for any grand, systemic de-auto-centralization of the whole nation.

          I’m going to regret responding, aren’t I. Meh, whatever.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Eric2, you did touch on something about the feds funding construction but not operations. One reason for that is the federal government would become the de facto bargaining agent for management. FTA’s standards for bus lifespans effectively make it a monopsony. Labor is the predominant cost driver of transit, and unions would be tempted to lobby for a model contract at the national level. Under a GOP administration, there might instead be pressure to outsource operations to private companies or Thatcherize transit (wring profit out a government function never intended to be profitable).

          • Henry

            I don’t think this would happen, if only because the existing municipal operations were all Amtrak-style bailouts of private companies, and the private corporations that still exist have vehemently expressed disinterest in running unprofitable passenger operations. Brightline is a tepid step in that direction by a minor railroad.

            You do see genuine competition in the intercity bus market, but this market never suffered the massive collapse that public transit did.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Henry, I wasn’t referring to Amtrak. The GOP position is clear: They want Amtrak dead and want absolutely no passenger rail. Even the Texas GOP is hostile to the Dallas-Houston HSR that is privately built, financed and operated. Until the Tea Party came along, you did have some otherwise very conservative Republican congressmembers (i.e. Trent Lott) who would come to Amtrak’s aid in an attempt to kill it. We saw this in the twilight of George W. Bush’s term when there was an attempt on Amtrak’s life and there was a broad public, congressional and administrative (the David Gunn saga was interesting to say the least) pushback.

            The UK under Thatcher actually turned local bus service into a private, profit-making enterprise. It would only come to London much later. It was supposed to be like Uber where there would be unlimited entry to any participant and have open competition on routing and fares. Reality set in and transit service was much less lucrative then expected. Today, the services are private but it’s a semi-monopolistic franchise system. Most cities see a single company like FirstGroup (First Transit in the US) win the franchise, but larger cities may see two or three private carriers. If a city has buses and trams, they’re usually operated differently.

            The downside in the UK, unless it has been resolved, is that the government mandates that the carriers compete. They are forbidden to cooperate on fare media, coordinated schedules and the like. This was never the case in London, where you have public management but private operation of services and every mode takes the Oyster card.

          • Henry

            @Bobson Dognutt

            You’re missing the point. The comparison to Amtrak is that, unlike in Great Britain where nationalization was government policy for ideological reasons, both Amtrak and today’s American public transit authorities were emergency interventions to prop up defunct private businesses, which could not survive even in cases where they were monopolies in their local markets. If Thatcher-style privatization took place of American municipal bus services, they would probably just fold entirely within the first few years, because there is pretty much zero chance of even remotely breakeven local buses in the United States.

          • Bobson Dugnutt

            @Henry, we’re not in disagreement! You’re correct that Amtrak and local transit became wards of the state because the services ceased to be profitable to their private owners but the public demanded they continue. Expecting to wring profit out of them will mean certain death for these systems.

            I’m also looking at Wikipedia’s entry on farebox recovery, and there are only 7 entities showing a profit — 6 in Asia and the London Underground.


            The highest in the U.S. are … the people mover connecting Oakland Airport to BART and … AMTRAK? Is 95% correct?!

          • Alon Levy

            BVG’s farebox recovery is increasing, and the U-Bahn alone probably breaks even, like the Tube. This means that it’s likely the Métro in Paris is profitable, and the high subsidies one sees in the system are for buses and commuter trains; this is also the case in Helsinki.

          • michaelrjames

            @Bobson Dugnutt

            One has to be careful about such data. As that page says (warns): “Total transport expenses may include expansion projects if they are paid for by the operator.” That would include whether any capital repayment (debt or bonds etc) is included as an annual operating cost. Plus in the case of HK and the Japanese entities, among the best performers on the list, they derive considerable income from their extensive property interests. While that income is not part of the calculation (like other income such as advertising etc), it results in much less, or maybe zero, debt and thus zero capital interest payments. Further, the privatised or semi-privatised entities includes those same HK and Japanese entities which I suggest is no accident, were not burdened with the massive capital costs of their networks. In the case of JNR (state owned) when privatised in the 80s it was intended that (1) the various entities (eg. biggest was JREast) were supposed to carry at least a small part of the debt but in the end they didn’t, and (2) they were supposed to help repay the bulk of JNR’s accumulated debt which was held in the state-owned entity JNR Settlement Corporation, but they didn’t. That debt continued to grow and at formation it amounted to ¥37 trillion [US$301bn–that’s b for billion: three hundred billion US dollars; I assume that is held as long-term government bonds which, ok, today has very low interest]. Contrast that with French-SNCF which carries high debt though just like with JNR->JR a €32 billion debt was shunted around ,to RFF (in 2013 then a few years later (2015) the network assets (debt-free) were reconstituted as SNCF Réseau and the operational assets of SNCF became SNCF Mobilités, and in Jan this year a further €25bn debt was transferred to the state. Some recent years its debt interest payments have been 50% of operating loss.

            There’s general consensus that I accept, that HK MTR is very well run, but crucially one cannot ignore how it was set up (no debt, no charge for its existing infrastructure, no debt burden from building new lines etc), allowed to be a developer of its own property (and earn recurrent income from it directly, not via some government entity) plus MTR supplies approx. half of the capital, with the government providing the other 50%, for large capital projects like line extension, new stations etc. Imagine how NYC-MTA might be if it were allowed to be a property developer, and to keep those profits? Does anyone think Donald Trump (of yore) or Larry Silverstein would allow that to happen, even though the latter’s WTC interests wouldn’t exist without the subway (most of the retail is underground associated with, or en route to, the subway. I doubt Silverstein paid for the billions that the Calatrava structure cost.

            As Robert Cervero wrote over 22 years ago in The Transit Metropolis:

            This lends support to the proposition that integrated rail and property development are vital to attaining efficient rail passenger services. …. Private railway companies accept losing money operating feeder buses as long as their railway and real estate operations benefit. … These statistics make clear that Tokyo’s railway companies practice a form of internal cross-subsidization–they compensate for the low profitability of their railway and bus enterprises with profits from real estate development.

          • Alon Levy

            You can look these numbers up in primary sources. No, there’s no cross-subsidization in Japan; the railways are profitable, and railways that engage in little to no property development like Tokyo Metro and JR Central make money too.

            And as for the general consensus that the MTR is well run, where is that consensus, exactly? Because there’s no such consensus in Hong Kong. The MTR’s reputation with regime opponents, who are the majority of the city’s population, is poor. And the 50% funding is all nice but Hong Kong construction costs divided by 2 are still almost as high as London Underground costs without such division and higher than any Continental cost.

          • michaelrjames

            There is massive cross-subsidisation in those companies. And JR Central has been a beneficiary of that historic debt deal, which assuredly affects their bottom line and operational profit. It’s just hidden in history.
            As for Tokyo Metro it is a relatively recent creation (2004) jointly owned by Tokyo govt and national govt. and its success comes from having the biggest network in the biggest urbanised area in the world and thus ≈7m passengers per day, and a stable mature network with essentially no debt. Even so (Wiki):

            “Tokyo Metro indicated in its public share offering that it would cease line construction once the Fukutoshin Line was completed. That line was completed in March 2013 … The only proposal that has any suggestion of possible Tokyo Metro involvement is the prominent project proposed as a new Narita and Haneda Airport connection through a tunnel through central Tokyo to a new station adjacent to the existing Tokyo Station. …. The 400 billion yen project would be largely divided between the Tokyo metropolitan government and the Japanese central government (which is similar to the structure of Tokyo Metro) with the rail operator or operators paying the balance.”

            Pretty similar to HK-MTR. The aversion to building new lines is obviously related to its capital cost and the debt effects on profitability, exactly what has stopped the other network, Toei (also owned by Tokyo govt), from being profitable.
            Then (Wiki):
            Tokyo Metro also owns a number of commercial developments which mostly consist of shopping developments at major stations.
            Perhaps they’re aren’t very significant in the overall finances like such things are for most of the other Tokyo transit companies (where Cervero says they account for most of the profit).
            Anyway, I am not saying those companies aren’t efficient. But there’s things contributing to that outcome that such a calculation or table of data cannot reveal, and make such simple comparisons, well, simplistic.
            HK MTR is what I said, even if no one likes its politics today; it’s a government entity in a HK now intimidated by Beijing so what else to expect? Despite HK being one fifth the size of Tokyo, MTR carries ≈5m pax per day which is ≈ 73% of Tokyo Metro. MTR also invented the wildly successful and much imitated Octopus Card.

          • michaelrjames

            Also, re that table, London Underground is up there with 134% farebox-recovery-rate. Is that because they are so much more efficiently run than say, Paris (30%), or Madrid (41%) or Copenhagen (52%) etc? No. LU charges at least double the fare of Paris (and with steeper distance dependence; indeed this is probably a big factor in flat-fare Paris v LU). Some cities and national governments choose to encourage transit, is all it means. Oh, and I don’t think LU is loaded up with the £18bn cost of CrossRail. Fair enough, but not the case for Tokyo Toei (74%) for its capital works.

          • Alon Levy

            No, it’s because the Paris figure includes the entirety of Ile-de-France Mobilités, including buses and the RER. The Métro doesn’t have separate finances. But operating costs on the Tube and the Métro are the same per car-km, and Paris has higher ridership than London per quantity of service provided, since it lacks the long, low-ridership tails of West London.

            I also don’t get the 74% figure for Toei; back when Toei was posting finances in English online, it was breaking even with depreciation and interest, and it was noted that it had recently stopped losing money on capital costs due to the slowdown in (read: end of) expansion. And Toei specifically takes the lesser-used subway lines, since Tokyo Metro got the most desirable routes and Toei got the routes swerving around Central Tokyo. We do have decently comparable cost figures for Japanese subways and they’re slightly lower per car-km than here or in Paris or in London, ridership is a lot higher, and fares per rider are somewhat higher than here or in Paris and lower than in London.

            As for JR Central: the historic debt deal requires the JRs to pay full interest on Shinkansen construction debt. The debt wipeout was not about capital costs, but about operating costs. 1970s’ JNR, like 2010s’ SNCF, lost money even before depreciation and instead of getting operating subsidies borrowed money to cover the losses; the privatization deal wiped the operating debt, retroactively subsidizing the operating losses, but required the daughter companies to pay for capital that they were still using.

          • michaelrjames


            I agree with everything you wrote in that last post. But it doesn’t conflict with anything I wrote. LU does have fares at least twice that of Paris or most Euro cities, and this is both in the inner parts (where a visitor will especially note it) and rides to the suburbs. I gave you a table of costs once but of course can’t find it now*; and that is without considering the bargain of weekly and monthly passes on the Paris Metro. With the continuing decline of the value of the GBP it is only getting worse. Of course Paris has more pax as just the Metro has more than all of LU (about 1.84bn (2018) vs about 1.4bn) and more than double (≈3.4bn) when including the RER (as usual these RER data are way out of date). Clearly, with approx half of all pax being on the Metro serving mostly intramuros Paris (and parts of the inner Petite Couronne) its flat fare does have a big overall impact (on average fare)

            Incidentally Ile de France has a special levy (Versement Transport) that provides funding directly to STIF. That has been in force for almost 5 decades (from RER planning days). That seems entirely sensible–even if it no longer is enough to fund capital costs–and also is not reflected in those tables.

            In 2010, for example, this tax financed nearly 40% of the operational cost for the public transport network in Ile-de-France[2] through the Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France (STIF), the AOT for the Île-de-France, which includes Paris. The STIF distributed the money between the Régie autonome des transports parisiens (RATP, the metropolitan transport authority), the Société nationale des chemins de fer français (SNCF, the state railway operator) and the Optile group (private companies that operate bus lines in the suburbs).

            As I said, those farebox recovery tables are rather simplistic (and appeal to your inner econocrat). Some cities choose to keep fares (and fare systems) low and simple to encourage riders and simplify function while obtaining finance from multiple sources. No doubt there are many reasons why LU has such low ridership compared to Paris but those very high fares are part of the story (and the bore in central London is that stations are much further apart than in Paris but you’ll still be slugged for a single station trip).

            Re Toei, like anything Japanese it can be a challenge nailing down hard data. But regardless of its precise status it seems its loss-making for large parts of its history relates to those capital costs. Perhaps like you say it is filling the less profitable parts of the Tokyo metro map but that shows why a single operator is desirable (it is remarkable how well it operates considering ….) and reinforces my point about the most profitable lines being private and totally dependent on property investments and leverage.

            By the way, just to be clear, I am a big supporter of Value Capture, though more the HK-MTR version than the Japanese version. A city’s transit should collect some payment from all the beneficiaries of that system (who may never personally use transit but whose business wouldn’t exist without it), and this is probably the best method (Paris’ Versement is a payroll tax so might be considered regressive).
            * I admit some of my perspective, and irritation, comes from my experience of LU prior to its (recent) adoption of zoning; ie. for most of its existence it had a strict distance-based, indeed station-by-station, pricing system that would drive you crazy if you tried to understand it or begin to get a rough idea of what a journey might cost. But the prices still make your eyes water: single tickets are 2.8x Paris, and monthly card is exactly twice (and that ignores that in Paris it apparently includes the entire system).

            Single ticket: £4.90 [€5.38] for travel in zone 1 (central London)
            Monthly Travelcard for zones 1-2 (inner London): £134.80 [€150.96]

            Paris (2019)
            A single Metro ticket: €1,90
            Carnet de 10: €14,90 (€1.49 ea.)
            Passe Navigo: (unlimited travel):
            Week: 22.80€ for central Paris and all Zones 1-5 (incl. CDG, Orly, Disney, Versailles)
            Month: 75.20€ for central Paris and all Zones 1-5 (incl. CDG, Orly, Disney, Versailles)

          • Henry

            New York’s subway, by itself, IIRC makes a profit, but they also cross subsidize the bus operations, which do not, and a good chunk of subway traffic transfers from buses, so if you just chopped buses tomorrow the subway would probably cease making money.

            MTR-HK is considered well run by outsiders, though people in HK itself, politics aside, are so used to abundant transit that they think waiting anything more than five minutes is a major headache. But MTRC is definitely slipping up; the construction of its various projects has been a hot mess (every single extension project was late and/or over budget the past decade; XRL, Kwun Tong Line extension, South Island Line, now the Sha Tin to Central Link) and the lines reaching their replacement ages on some systems is starting to show, with more frequent line disruptions and a few derailments.

          • Henry

            NYCT shows Heavy Rail OpEx per passenger trip as $1.77, and the base fare is $2.75 (and average fare paid is cheaper, but not that low). Am I missing something?

    • Alon Levy

      Red is also close to that figure. On hard costs alone, Purple is cheaper than Red, but Purple has this PPP structure with extra costs and has since blown up and now requires more subsidies and even pre-blowup the up-front cost per rider was higher on Purple than Red.

  2. Alex Cat3

    I’m surprised you chose to use Harlem as an example of bad off-center transit access for jobs. I would think it would be fairly easy to access compared to NYs other off-center areas. Hudson County has no rapid transit except for the PATH, which only serves central Jersey City, and the light rail, which stays in legacy rail alignments that do not look convienient to jobs. Its main form of rapid transit is busses which don’t even have dedicated lanes! Jobs in Williamsburg would be a pain to access for anyone not on the J Z M or G lines, jobs in Brooklyn require non-brooklyn residents to either take a slow subway ride through all of midtown and downtown manhattan or (for NJ residents) perform an awkward PATH-subway transfer. Long island City doesn’t look too bad, though.

    • Henry

      It’s a pain to get to Harlem from anywhere that isn’t in a straight line on the existing subway networks, which would basically the Bronx and Downtown. Brooklyn takes too long even on a one-seat ride, Queens is absolutely awful, and forget about the suburban areas or anything west of the Hudson.

  3. Frederick

    I’d argue New York City actually is directional — because Manhattan is sausage-shaped rather than circle-shaped. As the Manhattan CBD spreads northwards, it will also become sausage-shaped. The gist is, the Manhattan CBD won’t spontaneously spread into Jersey City or Downtown Brooklyn or Long Island City, because of geographical constraints (bodies of water, in this case).

    Geographical constraints aren’t necessarily natural like rivers and hills. Historical monuments (e.g. Rome) or royal residences (e.g. Tokyo, or to a lesser extent London) can also constrain a city. But the worst constraint is found in Los Angeles and many other American cities, where ultra-f**king-wide freeways obstruct the spontaneous growth of CBDs or other kinds of neighborhood.

    And there is actually a simple solution to the lack of connectivity between South Bronx and Columbia, or between the east and west side of Manhattan in general. That solution is underground walkways, or at least covered walkways. A good example will be the two underground walkways under Shinsaibashi and Namba, in Osaka. Compare the alignment of these two walkways with the alignment of the metro lines and you’ll see my point.

      • Frederick

        Nobody is walking from East River to Hudson, but they can walk from somewhere in between to somewhere in between.

        • michaelrjames

          Eric2 is correct though it is almost all in the mind. It’s not necessarily the effort involved or even the time, but the perception of it being a tedious chore. For years I walked 2.9km to and from work, and it took an easy 30min. A fast walker would do it quicker though in my climate you’d be a mess at the end; my walking speed is compatible with arriving relatively comfortable in a hot & humid climate. In the mornings I did get into the habit of using an umbrella–like Asians do, for sun protection.
          For many routes this 10mins per kilometer walking will beat transit, certainly up to about 2km but often 3km.

          Anyway, for New York, on Alon’s blog, I suggested a solution, in the case of connecting Penn and Grand Central stations:

          Penn Station to Grand Central?
          Instead of multi-billion dollar bored-tunnels etc. how about thinking laterally a bit: these are ≈1.9 km apart (along 34th, up Park Ave.) which is longish but entirely feasible by travellator. Obviously a series of them. Make it a city feature by putting them above the street, in a perspex bubble. Have 3 “tracks” and add gardens–like the High Line/Promenade Plantée–and cafes etc. Not only would it be vastly cheaper but it would allow entry/exit at a whole series of points along this busy route.
          I can’t find what the longest travellators in the world are, probably at some airport, but the two that link (underground) Chatelet to Forum Les Halles span about 450m. The Hong Kong Central–Mid-Levels escalator is possibly the most comparable concept; it spans 800m in a series of standard escalators (open-air with a domed polycarbonate roof).

          As Frederick notes, such a connection also serves all points in-between. I could go further and talk about variable speed maglev travellators:

          Acccelerating walkway could extend rail’s reach
          David Briginshaw, 29 April 2015.
          ThyssenKrupp has developed a moving walkway based on maglev technology which can transport people at higher speeds than conventional walkways. David Briginshaw explains how the system could extend the reach of metro stations to maximise metro capacity.

          • Frederick

            Yes, travelators. How could I forget about this?

            My opinion always is that, for a city as dense and as populous as NYC, walking should be a main mode of transportation. Things should be done to increase the safety, convenience, and comfort of walking. Things should also be done to nudge people into walking.

            This is also why I suggest an underground walkway even if it is much more expensive: 1) It’s all-weather. 2) Grade separation. 3) Being underground alters people’s sense of distance.

          • michaelrjames


            Underground always involves an awful lot of complication and cost, eg. in relocation of utilities, crossing other existing tunnels.
            Also people don’t particularly like to walk underground. Alon absolutely loathes the ≈450m of travelators between Chatelet and Forum, and although I don’t find it such a drama it’s not my favourite passage in Paris!
            My idea was to use the one space that remains under-utilised and pretty much free. Also to make it festive (cafes etc) and green (trees, gardens etc) like a version of the High Line so it would be attractive to use. Plus the huge advantage of having exits/entry points every 100m or so in this very busy section of town, it would be more useful to more people than either a subway line or an underground travelator. I believe this kind of thing will be significant in dense CBDs in the future. I think of it as a kind of Arcades Project of the 21st century (especially if the maglev version works as well as ThyssenKrupp claim). Although it is not the same thing–if similar purpose & function–Hong Kong is building 120 outdoor escalators to better connect transit to residential towers and retail precincts.
            Should be self-funding because the city will lease some space to those cafes etc.


            There is no direct subway or transit route from GC to Penn, which is what that blog article of Alon’s was about. As discussed earlier, using the subway on a 2-seat ride is likely to be slower than walking; and even for those with luggage using the subway is less than ideal. Not to mention that at the time most people are using those two rail terminals the subway is crowded and slow. My solution would be better than any of the alternatives (subway, walking, taxi or the shuttle) and take pressure off the subways to those terminals. It’s close to a no-brainer.

          • adirondacker12800

            There is a way to get from Grand Central to Penn Station or vice versa, underground. The subway. Goes a lot of other places too. That might be closer to where people are coming from or going to.

          • Eric2

            Very difficult to build long underground walkways in NYC. There’s so much stuff underground already, including subway lines. Also, underground walkways are unpleasant – no sun, no stores, stagnant air, trash accumulates, fear of crime.

          • michaelrjames


            I agree. As I wrote in my post @ 02.10.

            I should have mentioned that if walking that distance is about 20min, then for a standard travelator it would be about the same (they run them at approx. slow walking speed–I reckon they have slowed down over the decades probably due to OHS issues, maybe for fat and barely mobile Americans, and American litigiousness? At airports I can overtake people standing stationary on a travelator by walking in the non-travelator zone alongside which IMO is seriously silly) so for those willing to keep walking it would be about ten minutes. Nothing else can compete, let alone a 2-ride subway or even a taxi; maybe a cycle courier if they get green lights or ignore reds.
            The maglev version allows a slow segment (walking speed) at both ends for safe entry and exit, but speeds up in the middle, so it could shorten the transit times even for lazy non-walking Americans. How much it speeds up is not a technical issue as the limitation is always human adaptation or failure to adapt. The early versions of two-speed travelators failed due to too many people falling at the transition (which was imperfectly abrupt–the maglev system uses a completely different method plus accelerates smoothly to the set top speed).

          • adirondacker12800

            There is no direct subway or transit route from GC to Penn, which is what that blog article of Alon’s was about.
            That’s too bad. Into every life some rain must fall. There’s no direct rail connection from Grand Central to Rockefeller Center or the World Trade Center or myriad other places. And yet again you were too busy gazing at your own navel to pay attention to the previous thread you exhumed your old comment from.

          • Henry Miller

            @eric2 I have seen exceptions to that: Dallas texas has (or had 20 years ago?) underground walkways with sunlight (from skylights), and otherwise bright lights to it feels comfortable. Good air circulation, stores (these are in the basement of other buildings, no trash. Everything felt like any good shopping mall and if I hadn’t entered from ground level and gone down I wouldn’t have known I wasn’t in a normal above ground shopping mall.

            It is all about how you build them. Most of what I said above doesn’t cost much over the cost of the tunnels either. (though tunnels are expensive and so a good argument against them – I recommend a skyway system on the second/third floors, but that has gone out of style now. Tunnels should be for trains.

          • Eric2

            @Henry Miller

            Maybe the Dallas walkways are privately owned and able to kick out any homeless people or other undesirables who might enter?

    • Alon Levy

      But the Manhattan CBD is not actually spreading northward. It’s blocked by residential zoning; the 60s are already very residential. To the extent the CBD is spreading, it’s hopping the river, sprouting adjacent CBDs in Long Island City and the Jersey City waterfront.

      Underground walkways are great, but 125th Street is 3 km long, and I don’t think a walkway is especially good at getting people from 125th/Park or 125th/Lex to Columbia. This is not a corridor with heavy pedestrian traffic jams – the demand is for fast transit, to the point that even horrendously slow transit, that is the buses, gets good ridership.

      • adirondacker12800

        It’s spreading west into Hudson Yards. Wall Street spread west into Battery Park City and is creeping northward.
        There are other destinations on the West Side besides Columbia. Origins too.

        • Alon Levy

          Yes, but Columbia is the biggest Uptown job center, and the next two are Mount Sinai and Weill-Cornell, both on the East Side.

          • adirondacker12800

            That they are the biggest doesn’t stop the other ones from existing.

    • ssılqɥɐuoɾ (@jonahbliss)

      While I agree that crossing any sort of freeway is generally unpleasant (although the same is often true of train infrastructure), I don’t think that’s particularly applicable for Downtown LA… There are a good amount of high rises to the West of the harbor freeway (that’s the “away” side from the core of downtown), and in general the high density mix of office and residential is pretty contiguous from Downtown for another ~3 miles west, a contiguous blob that encompasses Macarthur Park and Koreatown / Wilshire Center. That’s also rather true on the north side of downtown, where you’d cross the 101 to get to Union Station / Chinatown. I agree it would be nice to cap or remove those freeways to make pedestrian crossing more pleasant, but in general they’re not particularly wide or all that big a disincentive to cross…

  4. adirondacker12800

    The gist is, the Manhattan CBD won’t spontaneously spread into Jersey City or Downtown Brooklyn or Long Island City, because of geographical constraints (bodies of water, in this case).
    They didn’t ask you and it is. To all three. Though all three of them have been job destinations since the 19th Century.

  5. Matthew A da Silva

    I honestly think Harlem is a really good area for job growth, not as good as allowing Union Square, Chelsea and the Meatpacking District to grow naturally, but better than LIC or the Jersey City waterfront from an accessibility perspective. Between Metro-North, the 2/3, the A/B/C/D, and the 4/5/6, a huge swath of the metro has a two-seat ride at worst and sub-1 hour travel times. Secondary CBDs will always be just that, secondary, and don’t need to be universally accessible the way the primary CBD is. The big missed opportunity, of course, is filling in the gap between Lower Manhattan and Midtown, but absent that, Harlem isn’t a terrible place to encourage job growth.

    • Alon Levy

      The difference is that LIC, like Downtown Brooklyn, has all of its subway lines converging on one central area, whereas in Harlem the separation between the 1 and the 4/5/6 is more than 2 km. Harlem would make an excellent secondary CBD but only if a Second Avenue Subway extension under 125th Street all the way to Broadway opened.

      And as you note, the biggest missed opportunity is commercializing the Village, but that requires letting go of so much MNYGA romanticism.

      • Matthew A da Silva

        I’d be in favor of some sort of grand bargain turning the West Village into a fully preserved museumesque historic district/tourist trap in exchange for opening up everything east of 6th Ave. to CBD growth. There is value in historic districts to the degree they are used to preserve small areas of unique history – freezing an entire city in amber was never supposed to be the intent.

      • adirondacker12800

        I thought one of the reasons for extending the subway across 125th was that it was already too busy. There is other work besides MBAs having circle jerks. I thought one of the reasons for ThRoUgH rUnnInG!! !! was that people on Long Island could work in New Jersey and people in New Jersey could work on Long Island. Razing Greenwich Village or putting office buildings on 127th Street isn’t very effective at that.
        We tried bulldozing things and replacing them with towers back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. We decided we didn’t like that. It’s too bad it offends your aesthetics.

        • Henry

          > We tried bulldozing things and replacing them with towers back in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
          We still do that, just nowhere that rich people arbitrarily decided was theirs’.

        • adirondacker12800

          Just because the building has an elevator doesn’t make it a skyscraper.

          • Henry

            LIC has sprouted skyscrapers, Downtown Brooklyn has a bunch, even Williamsburg got one at the Domino Sugar factory.
            They’re all about as tall or even much taller than whatever NYCHA was up to in the mid-century.

          • adirondacker12800

            Downtown Brooklyn and LIC have had skyscrapers for a century. And Jersey City. Newark. Jamaica.

          • adirondacker12800

            260 Kent Ave? It’s residential with less people living in than worked in the sugar factory. A lot less. Completed in 2019 the same year four buildings in Hudson Yards were completed. Whoopee! One building! Along with two others.
            How long is it going to take the outer boroughs to have 20 billion dollars worth of tall buildings built? 20 billion is the usual number tossed around for Hudson Yards.

    • adirondacker12800

      The average daily ridership of subway stations on 14th Street would be the country’s 8th busiest mass transit system. 23rd Street would be the 10th, assuming you didn’t make 14th the 8th.

    • Henry

      Generally speaking the RX would do a lot to improve regional connectivity at its big transfer nodes (Jackson Heights, ENY, Brooklyn College), particularly if it had stations to transfer to LIRR and MNR services.

      I’ve always favored a variation of the Triboro RX that goes west via 125. I’ve also seen the idea of an RX variant that goes to Rego Park rather than Jackson Heights, up to LGA, Hunts Point, and then Yankee Stadium.

      • Eric2

        I prefer SAS to RX on 125th. SAS to 125th allows for two seat subway rides between anywhere on the east and west sides. For many trips that would be the most competitive choice, more so than subway+bus across Central Park or whatever. But if RX goes to 125th, this would be a 3 seat ride, probably not competitive.

        • Henry

          That’s pretty much only useful for Washington Heights/Bronx users going from the east to west and vice versa.

          Someone on 86 St is not going to take the train up to 125th to go back down, because it’s counterintuitive and I doubt it’d actually be much faster given the transfer penalty. The M86 is only scheduled to take 7 minutes from 5th Av to Broadway, and nearly all the crosstown buses are this fast because there isn’t a whole lot of traffic crossing the park. (And two out of four lines have queue jumps and the like to make that even shorter.)

          • Eric2

            You wouldn’t take the two seat subway from 86th west to 86th east, but you would take it from 103rd west to 86th east which is already a two seat ride. And for any other such pairing, which probably means most east-west side trips.

            Also, from what I hear the crosstown buses do have horrible traffic issue in practice. And their headways are much worse than a competently run bus.

          • Alon Levy

            Not 86th, but, when I lived at 72nd/York, my bus-subway commute to Columbia was 50 minutes one-way, and I calculated at the time that if SAS Phase 1 were already open, my commute would’ve been 37 minutes with a transfer at Times Square.

          • michaelrjames

            @Alon: “my bus-subway commute to Columbia was 50 minutes one-way”

            That’s a distance of about 6.6km (along 72nd, up Amsterdam) so about 1h06m to walk! Or half of which could have been thru the park … you could have pretended you were Earnest cutting across Jardin du Luxembourg ….

            Or … shoulda gone to Rockefeller …

          • Alon Levy

            I would sometimes walk across the park to the subway, especially when getting back from uni at night, after the M72 stopped running and the other crosstown buses ran at 40-minute frequency.

          • michaelrjames

            @Alon ” …especially when getting back from uni at night, after the M72 stopped running and the other crosstown buses ran at 40-minute frequency …”

            Hah, me too. Missing the last Metro at about 1am, (at the second last stop of M7 so earliest last-train for the night) and faced with 30-minute interval Noctilien (and being bus, completely unreliable timing*) back into Paris–and then still faced with a 15-20 minute walk–I would trudge off for a very similar walk to your 6.6km. This was a reverse commute, from the centre to the suburbs (Villejuif medical complex due to become a major interchange on M15). Just for the record, I did trying cycling but cobbled roundabouts (esp. Place d’Italie and Porte d’Italie), traffic, weather and theft defeated me, and common sense as Paris was no place for cyclists back then. I did have a car for my first year but ditto–trouble with parking and with the stranded dilemma–always parked at the wrong end of the commute when you could have used it–and driving tension and theft, and of course common sense in Paris, plus the final straw being broken down at Porte d’Italie in winter rain in early a.m.

            However, Paris Metro did make me realise how one came to take its convenience for granted and was reminded of this fact at every visit to London and NYC (not to mention all the Anglosphere cities with nothing but Eric2’s buses). One might think that Manhattan’s very long and thin geography would be good for subway lines, and in some senses it is, but your tale (and my limited experience, at the ‘other’ Columbia, the medical centre way up in Wash Hts) shows it can still be quite a bore/chore to get around in a timely fashion. It really shouldn’t take 50+minutes for 6km, not withstanding a 2-seat ride. As I wrote, your commute averaged at barely better than leisurely walking pace! Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison (a single seat ride, almost door-to-door) but my (later) commute on M7 from the centre (Pont-Marie, Ile St Louis) to Villejuif – Paul Vaillant-Couturier (about 5km into the southern banlieu of the Petite Couronne) took 26 minutes to traverse the approx. 9km and 12 stations.
            *Murphy’s Law and the tyranny of bus timetables is that if you arrive comfortably early–say 1- 2 minutes–nevertheless you often see the rear of the bus pulling out of the stop, while the next bus will, bien sur, be late, or worse but by no means unknown, that next bus will simply turn into a ghost bus and you’ll end up waiting two scheduled intervals. It’s one of the reasons people grow up hating dependency on buses.

          • adirondacker12800

            Most transit systems curl up and go to sleep at night. There would be a four of five hour wait.

  6. Patrick Jensen

    In Europe the general pattern seems to be that you will find the poorest communities at around the 45 min – 1 h mark from the CBD along a public transportation line. Beyond this incomes rise again as you enter car-based commuter exurbs. I wonder what kind of pattern one would find in Asia, though?

    • Andrew in Ezo

      I can only speak for Japan, but in general and historically the higher income communities are located on higher land, while lower income (not necessarily “poor”) working class neighborhoods are located on low lying land near rivers or adjacent to industrial districts (Shitamachi wards in Tokyo, Kawasaki near the seafront, the Sagami Plain in Kanagawa Prefecture, Amagasaki in Kansai). The CBD and adjacent areas are high *average* income and desirable, of course there is quite a mix of incomes within a ward so income inequality is present within these neighborhoods. Commuter exurbs are not necessarily high income, other than the aforementioned high lying land (typically, real estate developers, including some of the private railways like Tokyu Railways, like to add terms like “hill” (oka) or “highland/high point” (dai) to their development place names to appeal to prospective landowners), as the further away you get from the CBD, land prices fall as the train commute times increase, and in Japan almost everyone with a job in the urban core commutes by train, even middle and upper management as well as the professional class. In the Tokyo area higher income/desirable suburban neighborhoods tend to be located southwest of Tokyo’s Yamanote Loop – in Setagaya Ward, the suburbs of Kawasaki and Yokohama that fall within the Tama Hills upland region (served by Tokyu and Odakyu Railways), while the western suburbs of Chiba adjacent (and lying above the floodplains of the Edo and Ara Rivers) to Tokyo’s Shitamachi districts are higher income.

      • Alon Levy

        the western suburbs of Chiba adjacent (and lying above the floodplains of the Edo and Ara Rivers) to Tokyo’s Shitamachi districts are higher income

        Oh, interesting, I didn’t realize this about the altitude! I thought Tokyo just had directionality (rich west/southwest, poverty in Chiba and Saitama) plus higher incomes in Central Tokyo and Shibuya than farther out.

        • Andrew in Ezo

          Yes, the break between the Tokyo lowlands and the Chiba plateau is quite apparent when you take the JR Joban Line, which rises on a grade after crossing the Edo River. Similarly the nearby Keisei Narita Airport Access Line (Hokuso Line) actually pierces the Chiba plateau and has a tunneled subsurface section after crossing the river. The following map from a blog post shows income levels in various wards and cities in the Kanto region. Old data pre 2013, but probably hasn’t changed much:
          It’s interesting to compare the above with another map of educational levels (darker means higher % of people with educational attainment of junior college or higher). As you can see, the suburbs of Chiba adjacent to Tokyo have higher education attainment mirroring that geographical break:

          *to add about suburbs/exurbs not being particularly rich, there are the exceptions such as above, and more famously/well-known, there is the Kamakura/Zushi area in Kanagawa Prefecture, as well as some areas in the Shonan area along Sagami Bay. Kamakura of course having history and cachet- being the medieval military capital of Japan at a time when the area that was to become Tokyo was still a marshy area dotted with fishing hamlets. The longstanding wealth of that area led to the Japanese government railways to provide suburban electric railway commuter services on 15 minute headways utilizing relatively long (9 car), multi-class EMU trainsets from the 1930s. It is said that these services and operating patterns later influenced the long distance suburban “Shonan densha” emu services of 15 car trains which continue to this day on the Tokaido Main Line and points beyond.

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