Why New Yorkers Suffer More in the Cold

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 - 08:00 AM

New Yorkers bundled up as a polar vortex descended on the city January 7, 2014, creating frigid temperatures. New Yorkers bundled up as a polar vortex descended on the city January 7, 2014, creating frigid temperatures. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

The high temperature in St. Paul, Minnesota Monday was minus seven. And, we're talking real temperature, not wind chill. But, guess what, New Yorkers do suffer more in the cold. Here's why.

Yes, it's been terrible in Minnesota this winter. But, as Paul Huttner, the Minnesota Public Radio meteorologist points out, a lot of that is spent going from a warm house to a warm car to a warm office.

In New York, we're walking. Half of us don't even own cars.

New York consistently ranks among the nation's most walkable cities. And it's true, we do walk a lot. More than 14 percent of New Yorkers walk or bike to work. Half of us get to work by bus or train, but that typically involves walking fifteen minutes on each leg of our commutes, according to a 2013 study by the Department of Health (pdf - In the spring, that's a delight. In the winter chill, it's less fun. 
The walkability of city neighborhoods varies a lot, according to a followup study released today by the department. Lower Manhattan has the highest ranking on the walkability index, and Staten Island the lowest. What makes a neighborhood walkable? 
Walkable neighborhoods have high intersection density; high residential density; a mix of residential, commercial, recreational and institutional land uses; few retail stores set back behind parking lots; and good access to public transit. 
The full report is here. Yes
New York consistently ranks among the nation's most walkable cities. And it's true, we do walk a lot. More than 14 percent of New Yorkers walk or bike to work. Half of us get to work by bus or train, but that typically involves walking fifteen minutes on each leg of our commutes, according to a 2013 study by the Department of Health. 


Comments [17]

Stephen Miller from Baltimore, MD

As a native New Yorker (who grew up without a car) and a Minnesotan for 8 years, I am really disappointed with this article.

For one, it assumes that every Minnesotan has a car, a garage, and a job with an indoor parking ramp. As someone who has never owned a car and commuted daily via bus, I can tell you waiting for a bus that I know wouldn't show up for 15 minutes during -10 degree weather cannot be matched by any amount of walking in NYC's coldest days. Heck, in NYC, the vast majority of (major) transit stations have SOME sort of protection against the elements. In Minnesota, you are lucky if there is a shelter, much less ANY heating elements.

Secondly, you assume that the ENTIRE Minnesotan population takes cars. While NYC does have a much higher transit commuter mode share than the Twin Cities (you can say the same for any US city), this doesn't mean that 100% of Minnesotans commute via car. Again, I can tell you horror stories of waiting 15+ minutes for my bus to show up when the temperature was well below 0, but I would like to add I was not the only one freezing my butt off. There are thousands of people in the Twin Cities that take the bus everyday, regardless of how cold it is outside. For a progressive transportation site, it is a VERY disappointing assumption that every Minnesotan owns a car. It also reveals how narrow minded you are to make such an egregious assumption.

I will give you that on aggregate maybe the collective pain of all New Yorkers is worse than the collective pain of Minnesotans during an average commute. But then couldn't you say that for almost any metric because of the sheer size of NYC? Would you write this same article about how New Yorkers suffer more in the summer than people in Miami? You can, literally, do that for any state of being because of NYC's dominance in population and does not make for good journalism.

I understand you want to make meaningful comparisons to other places in the US. But to not even consider other factors - e.g. average walking distance, average waiting time for buses, overall transit coverage, etc. - and make such a brash statement just makes you seem ignorant.

Jan. 30 2014 01:36 PM
al drears from St. Paul,Minnesota

As a New York City native who's lived in St.Paul for nineteen years I can confirm this. I get back to NYC often, and when asked by friends how we deal with the cold, this article answers the question.

Jan. 30 2014 12:38 PM
David from New Jersey

I find many persons who live in the NY metro area do not dress properly for cold weather just see how many do not even wear hats.

Jan. 30 2014 08:14 AM
Rv from Nyc

I hope Mn does not have the wind howling off the rivers. That makes it awful to wait near the stops there.

Jan. 30 2014 07:01 AM
TOM from Brooklyn

Those sustainability advocates here in NYC are trying to cull the drivers by forcing them out of their life-sustaining cars. They show no mercy.

Jan. 29 2014 10:42 PM
WA from Minneapolis

I'm a NYC transplant in Minneapolis. I walk about 8-10 mins to the bus stop each morning -- and the buses routinely leave before the scheduled departure time (only in Minnesota!) making me wait even longer in sub-arctic temps. The sidewalks are not shoveled as well as one would expect which makes walking not just cold but treacherous as well. People are obscenely nice; complaining is not in their vocabulary (see attached audio clip of Paul Huttner being so nice about the MN suffering, a classic MN behavior) so they slip and fall without ever bringing a lawsuit. Unlike in NYC, where building supers start salting the sidewalks with a remotest possibility of snow fall and the sound of shoveling greets you often before the snow even reaches the ground, Minneapolis businesses and homeowners have little to worry about since the city sparingly issues tickets (because they don't have enough complaints, I'm told.)

I've lived in a couple of cold places including Boston and ski country, Utah, so I'm not entirely unaccustomed to the cold, but the cold in Minnesota is definitely a different beast. (There have been mere 32 hours of 2014 when mercury rose above freezing, and in most of those hours, the windchill was still well below freezing.)

New Yorkers don't suffer more, they express their suffering justly. That should come as no surprise to the kind and humble folks of Minnesota.

Jan. 29 2014 09:11 PM
Matt from Minneapolis

As someone who grew up in Minnesota, lived in New York for a number of years and now lives in Minneapolis, I would say that "cold" is a very relative term. In December, 15 degrees feels frigid. After a couple of weeks of -10 to -20 air temperature, it feels awfully balmy. I will say that the New York air seems a little more humid which makes 10 degrees feel colder, whereas the air in Minnesota when it is -20 is bone dry, which feels more like a hard slap in the face than something that penetrates your clothes and skin. Also, winter is much more beautiful in Minnesota, due again to the generally colder and drier snow which usually has the consistency of sugar, compared to New York where the snow is beautiful for about a half hour before it turns into the consistency and color of excrement. That being said, walking a mile in 18 degree temperatures is only more miserable than walking a mile in -10 or -20 degree temperatures if you are wearing a thin wool dress coat, thin leather gloves, dress shoes, wrap around ear muffs, and no hat. If however, you are wearing long underwear, thick wool mittens, a thick down jacket, and Steiger Mukluks, then it's a piece of cake. I loved New York despite the weather, and I love Minnesota largely because of the weather, it's natural beauty, and the sort of culture it shapes. From my perspective it has a defining impact on our collective psyche. And it's not just about the cold. It's about the contrast between winters that are colder than Moscow and Summers that are warmer than LA or New York. And the innumerable perfect days in between those two extremes. It marked the passage of time, it makes you appreciate whatever circumstance you are in, and it makes you feel very human, particularly at the extremes.

Jan. 29 2014 08:27 PM
eleniNYC from Jackson Heights

To Ross from Duluth: speaking as a NEw Yorker [born, raised, and educated here through grad school] -- snow isn't as miserable as it is messy and inconvenient because it just means that everything is delayed and you have to throw yourself out of the apt. 30 - 40 mins. earlier. By the way I stand outside because the #7 train is an el[evated] train for 99% of it's run -- except in Main Str., LIC, & Manhattan. To describe SNOW For the South: GA, AL, & others as"Catastrophic", I think is too understated --- "Apocalyptic" is really more what I had in mind.

I think Garrison Keillor's description of a Minnesotan Winter is as somethiing of a "Norwiegan" experience

Jan. 29 2014 06:48 PM
Matt from Minneapolis, MN

Just another article written by a New Yorker so other New Yorkers can feel high and mighty about their clearly superior culture. We're happy for ya!

Jan. 29 2014 06:34 PM
Jose from Minneapolis

May, what makes you think Minneapolis is one huge suburb? People take the lightrail, bus, walk, and even bike to work in Minneapolis in below zero temperatures. They just wear proper clothing. True, we have suburbs just like you do, but I'm not judging New Yorkers based on what people do in Long Island or New Jersey. Writting off the entire middle of the country as a suburban wasteland is ignorant.

Jan. 29 2014 05:56 PM

Unless of course you're in Chicago, meaning, you might take the train in from the suburbs. Likely you drove your car to the station, but you're then walking through the Loop. And their winters are more like Minnesota's than ours.

Jan. 29 2014 05:43 PM
Ross from Duluth, MN

I thought it odd that this article never mentions the temperature in New York. A simple search on and you will see the lowest observed daytime temperature in New York City over the past two months was 18F. In Minneapolis, it's -7F. I imagine it wasn't mentioned because it would take away from the credibility of this ridiculously short article.

Jan. 29 2014 04:35 PM
Rachel from Minneapolis

You're forgetting that a number of Minneapolis-dwellers also take the bus and we don't have the comfort of an underground platform for the train. On the days when the windchill blows past -20 (which is pretty often this winter in particular) it gets pretty unbearable on the walk to and from the bus (not to mention waiting for the bus when it's trudging through snow).

Jan. 29 2014 02:29 PM
John from now NY - formerly MN

Seems to me a more fair comparison is how long someone can be outside before they're likely to get frostbite. From what I gathered (briefly searching the internet), in NYC it would take at least 30 minutes of exposure (based on yesterday's temp and wind) vs 10 minutes in St. Paul. Of course, that makes it much more difficult to actually assess as you'd need to figure out what percent of people are typically outside longer than those numbers.

Jan. 29 2014 02:17 PM

Ross, did you read what Huttner pointed out? People in suburban America tend to spend most of their outdoor time walking a few minutes from their cars to buildings, so they're not exposed to much cold. In urban settings like NYC, people spend much more time outdoors... so yes, physically, they experience more cold weather. The temperature might not be as cold, but the exposure is far longer.

Jan. 29 2014 01:56 PM
lulu from upstate NY

I lived in NYC many years. Walking yes, and the wind! Surrounded by rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. Brrrr.

Jan. 29 2014 12:20 PM
Ross from Duluth, MN

I suppose you're right; New Yorkers do suffer more than Minnesotans in the winter. Much like how Georgia suffers more than Minnesota when three inches of snow falls on the ground. To Georgians, it's a catastrophe. To New Yorkers, it's suffering. To Minnesotans, it's Tuesday.

Jan. 29 2014 10:27 AM

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