Public policy for mass transit in the United States is largely focused on a few modes of travel: commuter rail, urban rail, urban bus, and paratransit requirements. These few modes certainly carry most of the transit riders in the country, but do not represent a full understanding of the breadth of options that are required to make a truly transit-oriented city. New York is the most transit-oriented city in North America, and it is likely that when most people not from New York think about transit in New York they think about the subway system, or perhaps they include iconic yellow cabs or remember that there are a lot of buses. If you ask most New Yorkers, they will probably add many other modes, but even then there will likely be many modes left out.
An underappreciated reason why New York functions so well as a transit-oriented city—and can grow transit ridership without new expansion of core services (yet)—is that there are oodles of transit options available. Mode choices for travelers is not a binary choice between driving and transit, even though this has been the general attitude toward transit policy over the past few decades. Observing travel in New York suggests just how complex the required systems are to actually provide meaningful alternatives to automobility.
Below are 33 different categories of mass transit offering regular service in New York City (I have reviewed this list with native New Yorkers but I am sure others will have constructive comments about my categories). This is what it takes to create transit-orientation for a city, and I suspect many of these exist in cities everywhere but planners and scholars are not aware of them. In New York lots and lots of operators offer many different services to many different types of people. Not all technologies work for all places, so transit technologies should reflect the problems to be solved.
- MTA subways
- PATH subways
- MTA buses
- New Jersey Transit buses
- Metro-North Rail Road
- Long Island Rail Road
- New Jersey Transit trains
- Staten Island Ferry
- Staten Island Rail Road
- Water taxis
- Commuter ferries (Five licensed operators)
- Access-a-Ride (MTA and other transit provider contracts)
- Yellow taxicabs (Medallion cabs)
- Green taxicabs (Boro cabs)
- Liveries for Hire (Uber, Lyft, Carmel, etc.)
- Executive Limousines
- Liveries (informal)
- Commuter vans (licensed and pre-arranged fares; e.g. Mario’s Transportation)
- Dollar vans and local jitneys (informal immigrant services)
- Chinatown buses (intercity)
- Low cost intercity buses (Bolt Bus, Mega Bus)
- Conventional intercity buses (Greyhound, Peter Pan)
- Apartment shuttles (CoSo, etc.)
- Company/corporate shuttles
- University shuttles (Columbia University, New York University)
- New Jersey commuter jitneys
- Long Island commuter jitneys
- Roosevelt Island Tram (Gondola)
- Roosevelt Island Red Bus (Publicly owned development corporation)
- CitiBike bike share (public access for a fee)
- University bike share programs (free access for a designated group)
- Executive helicopters
When planning local transportation systems we now commonly say that multiple modes are required. We underestimate how many modes this is and how challenging it is to accommodate everything. Each of these 33 categories represents different customers, fare policies, public/private ownership, terminal capacity, vehicles, road access, curbside access, infrastructure needs, etc. Most of these different types of transit are regulated under municipal or state laws, too, and require the allocation of public space (roads and waterways) more than large-scale capital investment. I outlined some of these challenges in a recent CityLab piece.
The main takeaway from this is that for transit to be useful it must reflect the many ways people need to get around the city. Multi-modal transport doesn’t mean cars-transit-bikes-pedestrians. There are multiple modes of transit, too.