Using 1980-2000 census data, authors Jason Bram and Alisdair McKay find that although a growing proportion of New York City metro area workers are commuting into the city’s outer boroughs and especially to the outlying suburban counties, Manhattan remains the dominant destination of commuters in the region. The authors also show that the average commuter is traveling farther and spending more time in transit than in the recent past.
Bram and McKay find that increased job dispersion across the counties of the New York City metro region has driven changes in commuting patterns. For example, the number of workers commuting into the fast-growing counties of Hunterdon, Sussex, Monmouth, Somerset and Morris counties in New Jersey and to Putnam and Orange counties in New York State rose by more than 100 percent in the twenty-year period under review, whereas the number of workers commuting into Manhattan rose less than 5 percent in that period.
Nevertheless, Manhattan attracts the greatest number of commuters by far, according to the authors. For example, while Nassau County drew 195,000 commuters in 2000, more than any other county outside New York City, nearly 1.5 million employees made the regular commute to Manhattan.
The authors note that while the gradual dispersion of jobs to outlying counties would seem to offer the opportunity for shorter commutes, workers are nonetheless traveling longer distances and taking more time to get to work. One possible explanation, Bram and McKay suggest, is that the dispersion of jobs has enabled commuters to move even further out, that is, to homes in the more distant suburbs.
Bram and McKay offer some additional explanations for increasingly long commutes: growing specialization in jobs, more flexible work schedules and lower transportation costs relative to income. One likely implication of the trend toward longer commutes is that New York City, its suburbs and, more generally, the many local economies throughout the New York City metro region are becoming more interdependent than in the past.
Jason Bram is an economist in the Microeconomic and Regional Studies Function of the Research and Statistics Group; Alisdair McKay, formerly an assistant economist in the Group’s Business Conditions Function, is a graduate student in economics at Princeton University.