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Using MTA Turnstile Data To Examine Land Use


By Kevin McCaffrey, Senior Project Manager, Economic Research and Analysis 

Subway commuting data can offer clues to the residential and commercial use of space in the city.

Like any major city, New York City has some areas that are more residential and some that are more commercial. Getting a better understanding of where people live, work, and commute to can help to inform planning decisions that will support economic and residential growth development in new and emerging areas.

For example, you might think that people work in more commercial areas like Midtown and Lower Manhattan, and live in more residential areas like Upper Manhattan and the other boroughs. The MTA's turnstile data, which counts each rider who enters the subway system through a turnstile, offers one way to establish if this hypothesis is accurate by examining commuting patterns.

subway turnstiles

 The subway turnstile data is based on four hour blocks. Photo Credit: Adam Fagen, via Flickr

For our study, we focused on daytime commercial use, particularly offices. To determine whether an area was more residential or office-based, we looked at the proportion of morning entries to evening entries at that station. We assume here that morning entries represent people commuting to work and that evening entries are people returning home from work. 

hats and bags

Entries make a more reliable statistic since people have to swipe to enter the subway, and are therefore counted. Turnstile exits are not as reliable as people can also leave through the emergency exit gate and therefore do not get counted. Photo Credit: John St. John, via Flickr

We used the following times during the non-daylight-saving time period of November 3, 2013 through March 8, 2014:

  • Morning: 7:00 am – 11:00 am or 8:00 am – 12:00 pm, depending on the turnstile
  • Evening: 3:00 pm – 7:00 pm or 4:00 pm – 8:00 pm, depending on the turnstile

When we divide the number of morning entries to evening entries, we get what we call the Office-Residential Ratio. Lower values represent more office-dense areas, and higher values of the ratio represent more residential areas.

And the results…

The map below shows areas that are more residential versus those that are more office-based. Dark blue represents the office-focused areas and dark red represents the residential end of the spectrum. Yellow represents areas where in-flow and out-flow are roughly the same.

The size of the black dot represents the station’s total ridership throughout the day. Interestingly, the stations with the most morning entries also tend to have the most entries in the evening. For example, Times Square-42nd St is first in terms of morning entries and second in terms of evening entries behind Grand Central-42nd St.

For a close-up view, visit the interactive map created by Ivan Khilko with CartoDB. MTA station geocoordinates from Chris Whong. Information on methodology was incorporated into the processing code located on GitHub.

In addition to places where you might expect to see blue (office-based areas) such as Midtown and Lower Manhattan, there are also noticeable blue clusters in Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, and the South Bronx. In addition to offices, smaller blue hubs represent smaller clusters of commuting: clinics and shops in the South Bronx, industrial hubs in southern Brooklyn, and airport connections in eastern Queens.

Understanding alternative commuting destinations outside of Manhattan—and even encouraging their growth—might help ease the burden on our transit system, while supporting development in new and emerging business hubs. 



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