More housing is the answer to less transit

Buildings overlooking Battery Park in the Financial District of Manhattan.
Buildings overlooking Battery Park in the Financial District of Manhattan.
Spiroview Inc./Shutterstock
Buildings overlooking Battery Park in the Financial District of Manhattan.

More housing is the answer to less transit

Upzone commercial areas to allow more housing in them.
August 5, 2020

If employees return to physical workplaces after months of lockdown, they face a conundrum: take public transit, at a time when many fear crowds and COVID-19, or drive alone. If enough workers opt for the latter, New York City will face the prospect of calamitous traffic – a veritable “carpocolypse.” In New York City, traffic is recovering faster than the city itself: subway ridership is still down nearly 80% from last year while vehicle volume into Manhattan is only 15% off pre-pandemic levels.

Yet a third option exists, one that can help alleviate the ills caused by coronavirus and commuting: build more housing within walking distance of workplaces.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a vulnerability of urban America. Each day, armies of workers commute by public transit and personal automobile to their jobs and back. These daily migrations render cities dependent on extensive transportation infrastructure, each part of the system dependent on others — which may increase the risk of viral spread.

Though it is easy to blame elected officials’ responses to coronavirus, this lack of resilience derives in part from the way post-war American metropolitan regions have been centrally planned and built. Unlike the traditional mixed-use neighborhood, which satisfies residents’ basic needs for food, work, and leisure within close proximity, sprawling post-war cities and suburbs require the typical American to work in one place, shop in another, and live somewhere else entirely.

The separation of business districts and housing has social costs. For years, studies have shown that commuting harms physical and mental well-being. One even found that adding 20 minutes to a commute makes workers as miserable as a 19 percent reduction in pay. Writ large, these effects are a matter of public health. Long commutes also disproportionally affect America’s black communities and the working poor.

New Yorkers face the worst commutes in the country: an average of 35.9 minutes one-way and 89.4 hours stuck in congestion each year. In the densest, least car-dependent metropolis in the nation, how is this possible?

One reason: not enough housing has been built in areas where jobs are growing. An October 2019 report by the New York City Department of City Planning found that from 2009 to 2018, 700,000 new jobs were added in the city, compared with only 197,000 new housing units permitted. In certain areas, the mismatch between job and housing growth is striking. SoHo, among the wealthiest areas in New York City and accessible on foot to tens of thousands of Lower Manhattan jobs, has not witnessed a single new unit of affordable housing built during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, despite the mayor’s goal to build or preserve 300,000 such units. 

While New York – including the suburbs on Long Island and in Westchester – have faltered, Northern New Jersey has experienced a residential construction boom. During the 2009-2018 period, North Jersey added 88,000 jobs and issued 183,000 residential unit permits. The result: more people living in New Jersey and commuting to work in New York City, which further necessitates the transportation infrastructure that moves them around. 

This wouldn’t be the first time cities like New York added housing to commercial areas. After 9/11, the Financial District witnessed a wave of office-to-residential conversions. In 2000, there were 22,700 residents in Lower Manhattan; today, there are about 64,000, with 17 buildings under construction or planned. The largest of those developments, One Wall Street, is a massive $1.5 billion redevelopment that will add 566 apartments and retail space to the area. 

“We need to bring hous­ing to com­mer­cial dis­tricts if we’re go­ing to have a stronger neigh­bor­hood fab­ric and make peo­ple less de­pen­dent on pub­lic trans­porta­tion and long com­mutes,” Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of Partnership for New York City, toldThe Wall Street Journal for an article touting the Financial District as a model. She’s right. Mixing housing and commercial uses in the same area should reduce commuting times without requiring new investments in transportation infrastructure. Cities have become larger in recent decades, but the car and train haven’t rendered walking obsolete. For centuries, urban dwellers simply walked everywhere they needed to go. We still have our two feet, and now many of us have bicycles too. 

Areas that are home to more job growth than new housing should be upzoned. In New York City, SoHo could add 1,500 units, even while keeping historic preservation protections in place. East Midtown has an enormous concentration of employers, yet caps residential use at 20 percent of each building’s total square footage. Relaxing or eliminating these restrictions would help create a more resilient, thriving neighborhood in one of the most dynamic job centers in the world. Even historic districts have parking lots and newer commercial buildings that could be redeveloped to the historic density of surrounding buildings — all without destroying landmarked sites or the essence of the neighborhood.

Allowing more housing near jobs also makes cities work better. Cities are best defined as labor markets, observes Alain Bertaud, author of the seminal book Order without Design, which means that a smooth commute and affordable housing close to jobs makes places more productive and workers better off. Well-functioning cities require well-functioning labor markets dependent on affordability and mobility.

The goal is not to replace jobs with housing in urban cores, but to allow the two to grow together. A similar outcome could occur with job growth in suburban housing centers, but there are costs to “employment sprawl”: a resident of Long Island could face an even more torturous commute for a job that jumps the Hudson to Jersey. Labor markets also become more dynamic when they can bring people together easily and are allowed to adapt over time. Downtown Brooklyn’s 2004 rezoning led to the creation of thousands of new homes in an area filling up with office and retail jobs a short walk or bike ride away, all of which was built atop a host of subway lines reaching the rest of New York City. 

So, as cities face fears of pandemic and traffic congestion from returning commuters – while also dealing with plummeting demand for retail and office space – urban planners and politicians should get serious about this jobs-housing mismatch. New York City has lost more than 1 million jobs and nearly 3,000 businesses since the start of the year, and while many jobs will come back and some firms will eventually take advantage of cheap rents, some may not. The hardest-hit industries of hospitality, retail, and restaurants face a long road to recovery, and many landlords facing lost income will be looking to other residents or firms facing their own hardships to fill vacancies. Carving apartments out of underperforming spaces in commercial districts, for instance, can alleviate the still-high cost of housing and avoid a glut of vacant offices from depressing the market and hampering municipal tax revenues. With the right policies, this time of crisis can give way to more neighborhoods where we live, work, and play.

Second, we can do away with the arbitrary use restrictions and density controls that prevent spaces from being adaptively reused. For instance, as our colleague Eric Kober points out, at least half of the ground floor retail in many post-1977 residential buildings on major streets can only be rented to specific types of businesses, such as restaurants or retail, while disallowing everything else. High retail-parking minimums in the most popular parts of Williamsburg and Greenpoint limit what can feasibly be built as mixed-use. And limits on hotel conversions prevent the large number of low-priced hotels built right before this recession being adapted as micro-apartments, which would give lower-income and younger residents the ability to live near the best economic opportunities.

For years, other cities have successfully undergone office-to-apartment conversions. After the dot-com crash, San Francisco converted about 1 million square feet of office space downtown into residences. In theWashington, D.C. metro area, some 7.9 million square feet of underutilized office space has been converted into residential units since 2008. Over the past three decades, Philadelphia’sCenter City has also seen more than 7 million square feet of office space repurposed to residential and mixed uses. Not only has this transformed a once-struggling business district into avibrant urban center, but now 37% of residents in the core Center City area walk to work, compared with 8.5% in Philadelphia as a whole and 9.9% in New York.

This prescription also holds for more car-centric cities, such as those upstate. Planners should identify job centers and permit more housing within a three-mile radius or thirty-minute walk. Adapting commercial properties for residential use can incrementally reduce the need for parking lots, establish a critical mass of pedestrians, and even help adding transit make more financial sense. Fewer workers will need to endure longer commutes, and infrastructure spending can be more efficiently allocated. Cities like Buffalo that have an abundance of less desirable Class B and C commercial space can redevelop suitable underperforming properties into residential and mixed uses. As residents fill those areas, restaurants and stores should follow, animating the streets during the day and night.

One result of housing development around Wall Street has been an extraordinary flourishing of community. A resident reported “a village-like quality that I haven’t found anywhere else.” This shouldn’t be surprising. Where residents work near their homes, they and their families are more tightly interwoven in the area’s fabric of life. Walking encourages frequent contact among the community, building a sense of familiarity that makes residents and families feel they belong to something greater — a life in common.

Pre-zoning, cities were more likely to grow organically and incrementally, with each neighborhood resembling a city in miniature. Today, cities are built more like patchwork quilts with separate uses sewn together by stringent, often-antiquated rules.

Allowing working, housing, shopping, and leisure in self-reliant neighborhoods also builds uniqueness and redundancy into the city as a whole. Ideally, a city that mixes uses by-right can grow and change while retaining a degree of distinctiveness to its individual neighborhoods.

For now, cities like New York that rely on public transit will have to make do with masks and social distancing. That should be sufficient, at least in the short-term. It will take a while before employment returns to its pre-pandemic level; the Independent Budget Office projects that it will take until 2024 to reclaim New York City's lost jobs. In the meantime, by building more housing near where people work can lead New York out of this crisis stronger than ever.

Placeholder blue outline avatar
Michael Hendrix
is the director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.
Placeholder blue outline avatar
John Ketcham
is a collegiate fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a third-year student at Harvard Law School.
Topic Tags: 
20201126