One argument against bus lanes, bicycle lanes, congestion pricing, elimination of minimum parking requirements, or indeed almost any transportation improvement that gets in the way of high-speed automobile traffic is that such changes to the status quo might make sense in the Upper West Side, but that outer borough residents need cars.
This argument is based on the assumption that almost anyplace outside Manhattan or brownstone Brooklyn is roughly akin to a suburb where all but the poorest households own cars and drive them everywhere. If this was true, outer borough car ownership rates and car commuting rates would be roughly akin to the rest of the United States.
But in fact, even at the outer edges of Queens and Brooklyn, a large minority of people don’t own cars, and a large majority of people do not use them regularly.
For example, let’s take Forest Hills in central Queens, where I lived for my first two years in New York City. In Forest Hills, about 40 percent of households own no car. (By contrast, in Central Islip, the impoverished suburb Long Island where I teach, about 9 percent of households are car-free- a percentage similar to the national average).
Moreover, most of the car owners in Forest Hills do not drive to work. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), only 28 percent of the neighborhood’s workers drive or carpool to work.
Admittedly, Forest Hills is one of the more transit-oriented outer borough neighborhoods. What about the city’s so-called transit deserts, where workers rely solely on buses?
One such neighborhood, a short ride from Forest Hills, is Kew Gardens Hills. In this middle-class, heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, about 28 percent of households are car-free- not a majority, but again high by American or suburban standards. And even here, less than half of commuters drive or carpool to work (8479 out of 17,822, although the difference between this number and a 50 percent share is within the ACS statistical margin of error).
Even more right-wing parts of the outer boroughs are similar. The council district including Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, and Brighton Beach just elected a Republican (in fact, a former student of mine) with over 60 percent of the vote. In the Brighton Beach zip code, about 46 percent of households own no car even though this neighborhood is at the end of a subway line. Only about 35 percent of workers there drove or carpooled to work- and in Midwood, only 32 percent do so.
Moreover, many of the people who do drive to work may work in the suburbs (like many of my students). So the anti-congestion-pricing argument that a significant number of outer-borough-workers need to drive to Manhattan is not supported by any evidence. As of 2017, only 9 percent* of NYC resident who worked in Manhattan commuted by car, as opposed to 39 percent who commuted to other boroughs, and 68 percent who commuted to suburbs.
*See p.. 67 of relevant document. However, I have not found any documents breaking this data down by borough of residence.