The New Way is Every Way

Lydia bikes to work. Lydia takes the ferry. If it’s late, she’ll call a car. If the bridge is jammed, she’ll get out at the subway. When she has props for a photo shoot, Lydia will drive. At night, she prefers the bus. Sometimes walking is simpler. If she’s out with friends, they’ll share a cab or take the train or ride bikes. Really, it doesn’t matter, and that’s a really big deal.

Lydia, who is also a T.A. member, is a perfect representation of New York City’s newest commuter. In the parlance of policy wonks, she’s multi-modal. In everyday English, she gets around in whatever way works. As simple as it sounds, that’s a whole new practice with repercussions that are already remaking the city and how we move from home to work and everywhere in between.

Not long ago, a person’s commuting habits helped define them. Shopkeepers, bakers, butchers and factory workers lived near their jobs. They’d walk a few blocks or take a streetcar or trolley to work in the morning and head home the same way. The people who worked in Manhattan’s big buildings—at a bank or an insurance company or an ad agency—usually had to travel farther, so they’d take the subway or maybe even drive. The folks who weren’t city types might move to Massapequa or Cos Cob or Scarsdale for a little breathing room and a lawn, and that’d come with a train ride and train friends and a train drink, all as regular as the train schedule.

These patterns not only built a certain lifestyle for their users, but also shaped the geography and infrastructure of New York City: they’re the reason almost all of our subway lines head towards Manhattan, and our bus routes run down neighborhood main streets. These configurations help explain the pockets of row houses that overflow from waterfront communities and surround old industrial areas. They’re one of the reasons real estate is still so expensive around Grand Central and why the architecture in the East 40s shines so bright.

Though the results of age-old commuting habits are still inscribed across the city, the habits themselves have started to change. In the past decade bicycle commuting has caught on in New York City, with the number of daily riders more than doubling. Transit use is on the rise too: after a significant dip in the second half of the twentieth century, the number of New Yorkers who regularly ride the subway increased by 36 percent between 1995 and 2005, far outpacing population growth. And with increased transit ridership comes an increase in pedestrian activity: where various travel options intersect walking serves as the glue that binds a trip together.

Car use is changing significantly as well. A poll recently commissioned by Transportation Alternatives found that more than 60 percent of the New York City voters who own a car drive it less than twice a month. Nationally, at least among young people, driving is also down. A new report by the United States Public Interest Research Group found that the number of vehicle miles traveled by 16- to 34-year-olds fell 23 percent, from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles, between 2001 and 2009.

There are a number of factors driving this remarkable shift away from a homogenous, auto-dominated approach to commuting, including changing attitudes towards the environment, the popularity of car-sharing and other shared ownership programs, and rising gas prices. The two most significant, though, are an increase in the ease and number of alternative transportation options and a changing economic landscape, which has allowed for, and created, new commuting patterns.

When it comes to getting around efficiently, choices are crucial, and New York City has more options than ever before. In the past few years, the City has opened a new high-speed bus line on First and Second Avenues, installed countdown clocks that facilitate better trip-planning, subsidized East River Ferry service and vastly improved passenger van travel in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. With those programs still gaining momentum, the City is now gearing up to open a 10,000-bicycle public bike share program. That venture will immediately add another viable transportation option for millions of New Yorkers, allowing them to further mix and match their choices, better connect multi-part commutes and discover the fastest or most fun or simplest way around town.

Also in the works is a plan for 18,000 “street hail” permits for livery cars that will soon be introduced in the outer boroughs. As is already the case for yellowcab passengers in Manhattan, residents of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx and northern Manhattan will soon be able to walk outside and flag down a passing livery without calling a dispatcher and waiting around. This sort of streamlining and simplification not only saves time, but also empowers commuters and gives them more control of their transportation choices.

These additions to the already rich tapestry of commuting options in New York City couldn’t be happening at a better time. In a groundbreaking report published last year, a New York City-based think tank called the Center for an Urban Future argued that the traditional economic order of New York City—where all modes point to Manhattan’s central business district—is no longer the dominant paradigm. They detailed the rise of intra-borough commute patterns and new economic centers in communities like Flushing, Queens, and East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where job growth is far outpacing Manhattan’s, but transit service, as well as bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, is woefully underdeveloped. David Giles, the report’s lead author, told Reclaim in a telephone interview, “Commute patterns are changing dramatically because the economic geography of the city is changing dramatically.”

The logistics of labor are changing as well. High-speed internet has made the promise of telecommuting a reality for thousands of New Yorkers from freelance web designers to Fortune 500 CEOs; so have office-sharing programs and co-working spaces. The daily grind, with its nine-to-five schedule and straightforward travel patterns, is fast becoming a distant memory. The new reality is one in which New Yorkers can make the best choice at the right time. That’s not only good for getting around, but good for the fabric of the city too.

New York City’s new commuters know what it’s like to walk and bike and wait for the bus in the rain. They relate to the importance of good subway service and street designs that keep everyone safe. This kind of understanding—it’s still too soon to call it empathy—may slowly diversify the monoculture that has ruled our streets for decades. A driver who knows what it feels like to cycle in the city will likely pass a biker differently and behave more responsibly. Cab passengers who know what it’s like to walk through midtown during rush hour might speak up when their driver makes a dangerous decision. With everyone riding the subway or a bus at some point, the constituency of straphangers could soon be a real political force with real political muscle. The emergence of a balanced transportation landscape means that every New Yorker, no matter how they move around the city, will get a little more consideration from their neighbors and their elected officials. This will lead to safer streets, better biking, smarter driving and more sustainable transit. It’ll help make T.A.’s vision for New York City the reality. And, it’s already happening.

The one-size-fits-all of yesteryear breeds an us-versus-us-versus-them attitude that isolates New Yorkers and seizes on hardships: it puts traffic and danger and differences at the forefront of any debate, managing to ignore the ultimate goal of everyone who wants to move around New York City: getting it done, so they can do whatever else they need to. That’s what the new kind of commuter knows well. It’s what keeps Lydia biking and riding and walking and floating and hailing and working and loving all the choices she has at her fingertips.

What’s it doing for you?