Manhattan’s population density is changing – and not in the way you’d expect

Residents in a Bayard Street tenement around 1890. Image: Jacob Riis at Wikimedia Commons.

Below are two population density maps of Manhattan. One is from 1910; the other 2010. The latter shows a city that’s absorbed the explosion in high-rise living and the growing desperation of pretty much everyone in the world to live on an island that isn’t getting any bigger (well, not much bigger, anyway). 

The twist is, the diagram that best mirrors the skyscraper-littered shape of modern Manhattan actually shows the city at the beginning of the last century. Here are the same diagrams again:

Image: Schlomo Angel, Planet of Cities.

Over the past century, Manhattan’s population has actually fallen by a little under 25 per cent. To put it even more plainly:

This shrinkage tells a story of improved transport links and living conditions. In the early 20th century, many factory workers lived in packed tenement blocks, often with large families. These tenements clustered on the Lower East Side, where population density has now dropped from at least 1,200 people per hectare to 600 or fewer. The rich, meanwhile, employed fleets of servants, making the average household far larger than it is today. 

Subway expansions, price rises and the razing of the city’s slums all helped push residents to other boroughs over the past century. As a result, far more people now work in Manhattan than live there. These density maps show the island’s current population densities by day and night:

Image: Joe Lertola, via Time Magazine.

As you can see, those red blocks don’t magically reappear in the visible portions of New Jersey or Brooklyn at the end of the working day – these city workers come from even further afield.

This ability to commute to the packed island, rather than attempting to live there, was massively boosted by the introduction of a subway system whose fares are part-publically subsidised. The first underground line opened in 1904. The network now covers pretty much the whole of New York City:


The island’s population recently began to rise again, so it remains to be seen which way the trend line will go. If flying cars take off, of course, no one will need to live on overpriced Manhattan real estate at all – it’ll just be a network of office blocks and landing strips. 

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.