International research on NY commuting times highlights inequity

York geographer teams up with a US researcher in a policy-relevant study that reveals race and gender disparities through New York commuting times.

Valerie Preston

Joining research forces with Professor Sara McLafferty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign, York Geography Professor Valerie Preston studied commuting times in New York City along race and gender lines. Commuting, in this context, is seen as a rational trade-off between wages and travel time.

Sara McLafferty

What the two researchers discovered underscores the advantages of central residential locations where “good” jobs are readily accessible by rapid transit for white and Asian men, and women. The flip side was lengthy commutes persisting for blacks and Hispanics – in particular, women − living farther away from Manhattan and earning less.

“One interpretation of our findings is that privileged white men and women enjoy better access to employment that reinforces and maintains their privilege,” Preston explains. These findings will no doubt catch the attention of policy-makers on both sides of the border.

Contributing to larger body of research

The idea of looking at and measuring social equity through commute times and access to employment has evolved from a larger body of international research. This provides an important backdrop for Preston and McLafferty’s work. Twenty years ago, for example, research revealed the harmful effects of racial and ethnic segregation and access to transportation on minority women’s commuting.

“One interpretation of our findings is that privileged white men and women enjoy better access to employment that reinforces and maintains their privilege.”
– Valerie Preston

Since then, the situation has worsened; income inequality has grown. The gulf between “good jobs” (secure and well-paid) and “bad jobs” (insecure, poorly paid) has widened, and it has been accompanied by the concentration of “good jobs” at central and suburban locations.

Lengthy commutes persisting for blacks and Hispanics – in particular, women − living farther away from Manhattan and earning less

Lengthy commutes persist for blacks and Hispanics – in particular, women − living farther away from Manhattan and earning less

The clustering of these “good jobs” in highly valued central locations has attracted affluent, well-educated professionals. Conversely, 2010 census data showed that minority residents, in particular blacks, were concentrated in less desirable residential areas, near relatively few jobs.

This kind of residential income segregation has increased steadily to the point where low-income households live near other low-income households and high-income households also cluster together. This further entrenches racial segregation.

Focus on Manhattan as largest employment concentration

Preston and McLafferty’s study concentrated on the New York area – specifically, Manhattan as the central core – and the surrounding 24-county region, which included the other boroughs of New York City and adjacent urban and suburban areas in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Manhattan was selected as the base because it is the most gentrified part of the metropolitan area, where a dense network of subways and buses serves the area’s largest employment concentration.

The researchers compared travel times among three urban and examined the impacts of wages, household type, and mode of transportation on commuting time.

The researchers compared travel times and examined the impacts of wages, household type, and mode of transportation on commuting time

To study commute times by gender and race, the researchers looked at data for employed persons from the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) of the American Community Survey (ACS) from 2008 to 2012.

In their analysis, they compared travel times among three urban zones (the center, inner ring and suburbs) and examined the impacts of wages, household type, and mode of transportation on commuting time in each zone. (For this article, we will focus exclusively on the impact of wages.)

Findings show racial and gender differences

One of the key findings was that black and Hispanic residents commute longer than Asians and whites, with average travel times ranging from 27.8 minutes to 35.9 minutes for white and black men, respectively.

In terms of wages, the average hourly wages by gender, race and zone (illustrated in the graph below), clearly showed white males in the desirable centre zone earning far more than their Asian, black and Hispanic counterparts. “Average wages are exceptionally high for white men who live in Manhattan ($58.63), followed by Asian men ($39.40) and white women ($38.88),” says McLafferty.

Above: The chart illustrates the average hourly wages by gender, race and zone

Above: Average hourly wages by gender, race and zone. Source: Public Use Microdata Sample 2010. Calculations by Professors Valerie Preston and Sara McLafferty. Reproduced with permission.

This chart also illustrates how women in all four ethnic groups earned less than the men within their own ethnic group. From two different perspectives (gender and race), Hispanic women earned the least. Research from Harvard University Economist Claudia Golden reported a similar finding in 2014: Earning just 35% of white men’s average hourly wages, black and Hispanic women were economically disadvantaged, which Goldin suggested was the result of persistent racial and gender gap in wages. The only category in Preston and McLafferty’s research where men and women within one ethnic group earned the same hourly wages was the Asian group in the inner ring.

The takeaway message for policy-makers

This research is markedly complex with many different intersecting social and economic factors at play. This article focussed solely on wages, but other factors, such as transportation, can also be addressed. Due to its richness and comprehensiveness, there is no doubt that this case study will be of interest to policy- and decision-makers on both sides of the border.

While this research was based on New York, with its unique geographies of employment and population and a long history of racial segregation, the researchers point out universality: “The region’s size and complexity and its position at the forefront of urban economic and social transformations make it a compelling case study,” Preston explains.

What’s next for Preston and McLafferty? “Our conclusions also need to be tested by asking men and women from different racial backgrounds in each zone how they view their work trips and how these everyday experiences affect their well-being,” says McLafferty. Stay tuned for more collaborative research ventures.

The article, “Revisiting Gender, Race, and Commuting in New York,” was published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers (2016). For more information, see Valerie Preston’s work online.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca