New York commuters still struggling through post-storm transit mess

Workers coming in early, staying late while productivity falls

NEW YORK (Reuters) — For hundreds of thousands of workers in New York City, the commuter chaos wrought by superstorm Sandy nearly two weeks ago transformed the trip to and from work into a grueling adventure.

Many still set off hours earlier than usual or stay at work late to try to avoid excruciatingly long waits at bus stops or to beat the traffic jams. Some carpool. Others bike.

Economists can't put a number on the financial hit caused by the closure of subways, railway lines and other transit services, some of which remain shuttered.

But research by congestion specialists and anecdotal evidence from companies suggests the hit could be significant.

Each hour of time stuck in transit or in traffic generally costs at least US$16, according to estimates by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. This is how much people are willing to pay not be at a standstill and does not take into account money wasted on gasoline or wages lost due to lateness.

Data on the extra time spent on commutes after Sandy is not yet available, but people interviewed at train and bus stations last week said their travel times roughly doubled.

Similar estimates emerged from a survey of 315 people by Sarah Kaufman, a researcher at New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management.

"People who used one mode of transportation — say, a car or one bus — saw their commute time double. Two modes — a subway and a bus, or walking and taking a cab — took almost three times the amount of travel time," she said.

Kaufman also calculated a "stress index." Commuters from Staten Island, one of the areas hit hardest by the storm, reported stress levels of seven out of 10. New Jersey residents, whose rail connections to the city have been largely severed, leading to long lines and waits for buses, had a stress index of 5.67. Those in Manhattan, who mostly suffered shorter shutdowns of the subway and buses, were more relaxed at 2.97.

Dan Clement, an attorney with his own practice, normally travels from Montclair, New Jersey, to midtown Manhattan on New Jersey Transit trains. Since the storm, he has relied on buses, which he says take at least twice as long. He has had to wait in line for hours and plans his exit from the city strategically.

"What's happening now is that everyone's panicking about not getting home so the line starts forming at 3 p.m.," he said. "So you start looking at your watch at 1 p.m. You're in the frame of mind where you have to pick up and go, and it's a terrible way to work."

"Every hour I don't work is an hour I can't bill," he said.

Clement said he was trying to charter a bus to pick up 50 people and bring them back to his area at the end of the day.

The New York metropolitan area, the U.S. capital for industries such as finance, media and fashion, is home to 22 million people and has the country's highest proportion of workers who commute by public transportation — 30.5 percent, according to the Census Bureau. On a normal day, the region also has the nation's longest average commute time: 34.6 minutes.

New Jersey Transit trains — one of the main transport arteries into the city — carried 23,000 passengers into New York's Penn Station during last week's morning rush hours, one-half the usual number, said Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for NJT.

Only one-third of its trains are operational. On Friday, extra NJT buses began shuttling passengers to ferries that cross the Hudson River, after which many commuters have to take the subway, a time-consuming combination.

The losses from extra commuting time may never be known and are not included in the costs of the physical damage and lost business caused by the storm in the New York area, Pennsylvania and Washington, which will reach US$50 billion, according to Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi.

Filolaos Kefalas expects the engineering firm he runs in Bayside, in the borough of Queens, to lose up to 10 per cent of revenues over the next two months because of commuter delays and gasoline shortages.

"A couple of my employees, who don't drive, weren't able to get here at all. People are distracted. They've had to move their families to areas with power. And people are leaving early just to get home. We just don't know how long this can go on," he said.

His 15 workers are banding together to try to carpool, including one who dodged the fuel shortages and long lines at service stations by using his hybrid gasoline-electric car. "One of my guys owns a Prius and he's been the star of the office."

Research suggests that even if workers come in early or stay late to spend the same time at work, productivity falls.

Stephen Ross, an economist at the University of Connecticut, said people facing suddenly longer commutes end up doing more personal tasks during work, such as keeping tabs on their kids or paying bills.

Despite the scale of the disruption, some experts say New York has coped well and other parts of the United States would have suffered worse disruption.

"What's interesting in New York is how the city has been able to adapt based on the diversity of its transport system," said Eric Dumbaugh, director of Florida Atlantic University's School of Urban & Regional Planning, referring to the switch of many rail commuters to buses.

"If you hit Florida with that kind of storm, we'd be absolutely crippled."

Some commuters who live close enough to their work started walking and riding bikes. Two studies showed the number of cyclists in Manhattan doubled immediately after the storm.

For many, the uncertainty of when the disruptions will end is as big a problem as the daily delays.

"Even if it's an answer we don't like, we want an answer," said Joshua Crandall, founder and president of CleverCommute, an email and Twitter-based service for commuters to share information about transit services in real time. It has seen a surge in users since the storm.

"If I can't get to my office, and I know I can't for a while, then maybe I'll sublet, or maybe I'll invest in remote-working technology. That's what's getting under peoples' skin — they don't know what's coming."

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