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From Suburb to City and Back Again: A Brief History of the NYC Commuter

Long Island Rail Road Station - Crowd outside of train
Long Island Rail Road Station, c. 1939-40. Image ID: 1677161

“A Commuter—
One who spends his life
In riding a train to and from his wife.
A man who shaves and takes a train
And then rides back to shave again.” —Newsday, January 17, 1941

Each weekday, hundreds of thousands of commuters saturate New York City’s already crowded streets. Facing more incoming commuters than any other county in the country, Manhattan’s population nearly doubles each day with swells of travelers from the outer boroughs, New Jersey, Long Island, the Hudson Valley, Connecticut, and beyond.

The Daily Evening Rush Of Suburbanites And Travelers For The Cortlandt Street Ferry, Pennsylvania Railroad.
The daily evening rush of suburbanites and travelers for the Cortlandt Street Ferry, Pennsylvania Railroad, 1899. Image ID: 809471

“Desirable Living”

New-York Tribune, May 28, 1916
Three-month commutation ticket between Paterson and Jersey City, NJ, New-York Tribune, May 28, 1916

New York’s commuter culture began with the country’s first suburb: Brooklyn Heights. Between 1815 and 1835, regular steam ferry service to Manhattan transformed Brooklyn from a rural village to a middle class community. By 1860, these ferries carried 100,000 passengers across the East River to work every day.

“Come live in Brooklyn where there is a plenteous supply of sunlight and fresh air, where there is no crowding or congestion, where the transit facilities are excellent, where the rents are comparatively low, where there are many parks, schools, and churches, and where the home life is really worth living.” Live in Brooklyn, the Home Borough, 1911

New-York Tribune, October 6, 1901
New-York Tribune, October 6, 1901

The development of railroads had an even greater effect on suburbanization. Beginning in 1832, railroad service gradually expanded in the New York area, reaching sections of Westchester, Queens, New Jersey, and Connecticut over the next few decades. Commuting from the suburbs to the city truly became feasible by the late 1850s, when travel times from towns such as Newtown, Maspeth, and Flushing, Queens, and South Orange, New Jersey were down to less than an hour—ferry transfer included (Encyclopedia of NYC).

Rural Retreats

Harper's Weekly, August 5, 1893
Harper's Weekly, August 5, 1893

“Suppose we try living in the country this summer? The suggestion fell upon willing ears, and visions of green fields, swaying foliage, and fragrant rose bushes danced merrily about…” New York Times, July 6, 1890

Many of New York’s first commuters were summer suburbanites seeking “rural retreats away from the wearying din and unwholesome excitement of city life” (Huguenot Park). Whether searching for a summer country home or a permanent suburban residence, prospective home seekers had many relocation options to speculate.

Suburban homes on the New York Central lines, 1917
Suburban homes on the New York Central lines, 1917

By 1900, New York City was surrounded by more suburbs than anywhere in the world (Encyclopedia of NYC). Railroad companies and real estate developers encouraged increasing numbers of New Yorkers to move away from the city, boasting less noise and congestion, lower costs, quick and comfortable train rides, more light, fresh air, and healthfulness, and even more births than deaths.

Promoting the possibilities of an idealistic country lifestyle, many suburb guides and advertisements offered would-be commuters practical information for relocating such as details on new real estate developments, communities along train lines, and descriptions of towns and their amenities. Some of these early twentieth century train schedules quite interestingly reveal suburb-to-city travel times that are shorter or very similar to today. Perhaps there is not much hope for commuting times to improve over the next hundred years.

Commuter Culture

While living in the country and working in the city may seem ideal to some, a daily railroad trek poses challenges only truly understood by commuters themselves. Late trains, crowds, fare increases: commuters have been complaining about the same problems since the late 1800s.

New York Herald Tribune, February 17, 1946
New York Herald Tribune, February 17, 1946

“Men stopped at the station newsstands, bought a paper and glanced at the 'Fare Increase' headlines, then wordlessly resumed their sprints towards the tracks.” Newsday, January 6, 1972

Historical newspapers are filled with accounts of commuter struggles: checking tickets too often, broken trains, signal problems, wrong turns, unauthorized vehicle on tracks, and my personal favorite: held indefinitely. Train frustrations even once prompted intentions of establishing an air commuting service for the New York area.

“The range of excuses for getting to the office late is quite limited for a Manhattan dweller, but he who commutes can always describe the terrific snowfall in Jersey, washouts, wrecks, landslides and all the delay-causing accidents in the calendar. The employer may growl and suggest that you ought to have started for the office a day in advance, but knows you are telling the truth, or at least an approximation to it.” New-York Tribune, February 16, 1908

Regardless of the time period, each generation of commuters has faced their own (surprisingly similar) struggles. These unrivaled experiences have established New York suburb-to-city commuting as a lifestyle completely its own.

“Exhausted, I eat a late dinner and try to unwind a bit before falling asleep… then it’s time to get up and do it all over again.” Exit 8A: Tales of a New York Commuter

Penn Station rush hour, Change at Jamaica a commuter's guide to survival
Rush hour at Penn Station, Change at Jamaica; a commuter's guide to survival, 1957

Related Resources

Also explore NYC commuter experiences through articles in newspapers and periodicals via the databases Proquest Historical Newspapers, America's Historical Newspapers, HarpWeek, and American Periodicals (1740-1940). See this list for more resources.

Copic strip of catching a train in a modern terminal, New-York Tribune, June 30, 1915
New-York Tribune, June 30, 1915


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A Commuter's Life

I had experiences similar to those in the comments and illustrations in this feature. I lived the commuter's life for almost forty years before retiring. Then, I sold my suburban home and moved into Manhattan. Did I do something backwards? I love my new home!

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