By Timothy Little

Thoughts on the recently released “New” New York plan and assessment of the challenges facing New York City

Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams released their “New” New York plan in mid December. The proposals are intended to make New York City “the best place to work and serve as a roadmap for the city’s future.” In part, the report intends to move the city forward and transform commercial districts into 24/7 destinations. While the plan is welcomed, it had some sobering points on where the city is three years after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported.

Issues facing New York City discussed over the past two years are not new: lack of affordable housing, increasing inequality, and a hollowing out of business districts. It is laudable that the report brings these issues forward and puts together some proposals. But we need more than to think about how we can return to the past, the city needs to adapt to a new environment.

A few things the report points out:

  • Foot Traffic in the City’s Core Commercial Hubs has Barely Improved
  • The Private Sector Jobs Recovery is Significantly Lagging the Nation
  • Pre-March 2020 Transit Service is not Returning Anytime Soon
  • The City’s Lack of Affordability Housing is Holding Back its Recovery

While the report has some good ideas to address these issues, they will not be easy to implement—some ideas have been talked about for years. One key sentence sums up the interconnectedness of the city’s problems: long commutes, lack of affordable housing, and urban planning mishaps.

All graphics courtesy of Back of the Budget/Timothy Little.

New York metropolitan area commuters typically spend approximately 40 minutes in transit one-way, the highest US average, a combination of both slow mass transit speeds (the city’s buses are among the slowest in the nation) and the farther distances that separate many New Yorkers’ homes from their jobs—a choice in some cases and a necessity in many others, due to unaffordable housing costs closer to the city’s Core Employment Hubs or lack of housing units close to transit hubs (a consequence of post-1920s housing growth in the region being driven by new highways and bridges rather than accompanying mass transit infrastructure).

New York City needs more than just the growth and swagger reminiscent of 2019, it needs to reimagine how it operates and make investments so that all residents will be better off.

New York City’s Commercial Hubs Can No Longer Rely on Office Workers

The commute is a key barrier. Commute length and a “less than optimal” travel experience is contributing to sustained lower levels of transit ridership. With most professional services employees able to work from home, there has been a large and sustained drop in foot traffic within the city’s commercial hubs.

According to the report, Midtown and Lower Manhattan are still 9 and 1 percent below their pre-pandemic retail spending levels and 35 and 36 percent below pre-pandemic restaurant and bar spending, with foot traffic still down by 23 percent and 18 percent respectively. The lack of office workers affects the city’s economic ecosystem, but it is unlikely to return to what it once was. This is having a broader impact on diminishing the city’s ability to recover much of is COVID-related job losses.

New York City’s unemployment rate held constant at 5.8 percent in November 2022, compared to 3.7 percent for the nation.

New York City’s Private Sector Jobs Have Been Slow to Recover

Changing work locations is challenging the city’s employment recovery. During the pandemic, unemployment surged to 21 percent in May 2020. The City’s recovery has been uneven.

Professional services moved to working from remote locations, which prevented steep job losses in those industries. Job losses that did occur were concentrated in low wage “in-person” sectors. A loss of workers occupying office space had a compounding effect on other industries. Food Services & Accommodations and Retail Trade sectors experienced significant employment losses that have been slow to recover. Broader consumer changes resulting in less corporate travel and more e-commerce are creating a lasting impact.
New Yorkers who cannot work remotely also bear the brunt of reduced transit service. Less than 50 percent of jobs may be highly telework capable in these “in-person” industries. The cycle of reducing transit ridership because of lower utilization would likely further increase inequities for groups already facing disproportionately long commutes. For example, the report notes that “Black New Yorkers spend 46 minutes commuting on average—10 minutes more than the average white New Yorker.”

A Not So “New” Assessment of City Transit. Make It Easier for New Yorkers to Get to Work.

The report mentions an objective to maintain peak subway service and over time increase the frequency and reliability of off-peak subway service.

In the short-term the MTA will likely prioritize peak-time commuters while reducing service during non-peak times. Ensuring commuting is fast and reliable during peak times is one way the city can prevent further declines in business district foot traffic. While there may be an increase in subway ridership around events or holidays, the workweek rolling average has improved in recent months mostly due to the start of the school year in September.

The report also mentions goals to increase the supply of mass transit options, which could be interpreted as improving options other than subway service. Increasing transit options outside of the subway is good for residents, but it may come at a cost of slowing subway ridership recovery.

Some earlier “Back of the Budget” comments on transit ridership this year:

  • Post-Pandemic Recovery of Cities Starts with Transit and Housing (Sept 2022)
  • Mass Transit’s Summer of Discontent (July 2022)
  • The “Return to Office” Campaign Bust (June 2022)
  • Work and Commuting in COVID’s Next Phase (Feb 2022)

New York City’s Housing Affordability Problem is a Widening Gap

Most New Yorkers cannot afford to live near their work. Over the past decade, the city’s population growth has outpaced its housing growth. In some areas, the population has grown more than twice the number of housing units.

Housing costs have skyrocketed. In 2000, the median gross rent for a New York City apartment was $700 ($1,156 when adjusted to 2021 dollars). As of 2021, median gross rents in the city were $1,650 — a 43 percent increase, adjusted for inflation.

Most of the actions the report outlines relate to incentives for development, changing state law, and changing city zoning law. The New York State Multiple Dwelling Law limits the amount of housing on every potential development site across New York City, regardless of neighborhood. The only way to increase housing in the city is for the City and State to work together. In the aftermath of 9/11 lower Manhattan benefited from office to residential conversions and more of that is needed in other parts of the city as well. But there are significant barriers to work through and plans that tried to incentive these schemes in other cities have not had much success the past two years. Lenders and developers are often cautious toward such projects.

Now is a Time for Optimism 
and Imagination

New York City will continue to be great. It has shown a tremendous capacity to adapt, but now it faces one of the greatest societal transformations in generations. The changing work from home landscape and ease of travel across the country will reshape the city — perhaps more to a destination instead of where people spend most of their lives. Focus needs to be on new ways of doing things instead of returning to old ways.

From the report:

New York has always converted emergencies into opportunities, using crises as a chance to take stock and emerge stronger than before. This spirit of possibility has been ingrained in our foundation from the very beginning.

The city’s economy has been reimagined before. People come to New York because they want to make and build things; they want to contribute, create, and perform —but it’s not the easiest place to succeed, grow, and raise a family. New York City needs to be a place that benefits all levels of society and should use the next few years to reimagine itself once again.

Tim Little is a Municipal Markets Specialist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.