Bridges to Economic Opportunity: Why We Need Transportation Equity


August 8, 2014

busWe’ve talked on this blog about minimum wage, paid leave, and other human needs programs that affect low-income workers and people with disabilities. One area we haven’t talked about yet that also impacts the ability of these populations to get good jobs and improve their situations is transportation. Let’s change that now.

Convenient access to affordable transportation is critical to low-income people, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations. That’s why CHN yesterday cohosted – along with our friends at CLASP, Spotlight on Poverty & OpportunityPolicyLink, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the Transportation Equity Caucus, the Center for Social Inclusion, and the Amalgamated Transit Union – a national conference call on transportation equity. If you missed the call, you can read the transcript of it here.

Adie Tomer from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program noted that, while transit coverage is pretty good overall in cities, the transit isn’t going to the right places for low-income workers. According to research from his organization, 7.5 million households in the U.S. don’t have access to a car, and a majority of these households are low-income. While most have some access to public transportation, nearly three quarters of a million households without a car in our largest cities still lack access to transit. And even those with public transportation nearby can’t often use it to get to a job – city dwellers without a car can’t reach nearly 60% of their area’s jobs via transit within 90 minutes, and only a quarter of jobs in low- and middle-skill industries are accessible via transit within that time.  In some places, it’s much worse – in Miami, for example, only 16% of jobs are accessible via public transportation within 90 minutes. The situation is also worse for those in the suburbs than for those living in a city – on average, low-income suburban residents can only access 22% of jobs in low- and middle-skill industries via public transportation. In addition to low access and long travel times, the panel discussed public transit schedules and the impact being behind schedule can have on a low-wage worker’s job prospects. Being transit-dependent means when the bus arrives late, the individual doesn’t have alternative options and thus arrives late to their job, many times with little understanding from their boss.

And it’s not just access to jobs that’s important – Shefali Ranganathan of the Transportation Choices Coalition in Washington State discussed a situation in Seattle, where they found that the commute from an area of town with a high density of communities of color and low-income families to the closest community college would take only 18 minutes by car but would take an hour and 15 minutes and a transfer if taking the bus.

In April, the Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation released the GROW AMERICA Act, a transportation reauthorization proposal that would, among other things, increase funds for public transportation by 70% over current spending and establish goals to ensure that the transportation system connects people – especially disadvantaged groups – to economic opportunities. It would also expand access to transportation jobs for low-income people, people with disabilities and other under-represented people, an important step since one out of ten jobs in the U.S. is a transportation-related job, and these communities are vastly underrepresented in the transportation sector. With Congress’ July passage of the Highway Trust Fund patch, which will keep transportation projects going through May 2015, it’s not likely that this bill will be acted on soon. The good news, though, is that some states and localities have already started to push their own policies.

For example, a recent win in King County, Washington (which includes Seattle) means that next year, individuals and families that make up to 200% of the poverty level will qualify for reduced public transportation fares. Sheila Williams of the Memphis Bus Riders Union also spoke about her organization’s efforts to expand transportation options for disadvantaged workers to commute to work, including ensuring access to safe walking and biking routes. Anita Hairston of PolicyLink pointed to a study that highlights the growing number of pedestrian deaths in high poverty communities because of a of lack safe pedestrian options in high traffic areas.

What was clear from the call is that affordable and accessible transportation is critical to connecting low-income people, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations to jobs, schools, affordable housing, health care, food, and other basic necessities. The lack of transit for many communities is a major barrier to economic opportunity, and must be something we address as a nation if we truly want to fight poverty and expand opportunity for all.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Labor and Employment, Poverty and Income

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Discuss: “Bridges to Economic Opportunity: Why We Need Transportation Equity”

  1. avatar
    August 12, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

    Transportation is very important — but it can also be a double-edged sword.

    In the early 1900s, Winston Churchill recalled a situation where many workers in a low-income neighborghood were forced to pay a toll to cross a bridge to their jobs on the other side of the river. When the public became aware of the situation, they demanded action. So, public funds were used to eliminate the toll. Shortly thereafter, rents in the low-income neighborhood rose by the amount of the forgone toll. So tax dollars, intended to benefit the poor, ended up enriching landlords instead.

    The lesson is not to avoid helping the poor. Rather, good intentions must be accompanied by a knowledge of the “externalities” associated with transportation and how to address them. In this case, “value capture” would have been appropriate to return publicly-created land values to the public, which could have directed these revenues to the intended beneficiaries.

    Posted by Rick Rybeck
  2. avatar
    August 8, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

    Well said. What’s omitted is the role sprawl plays in the abysmal transit available in most cities. Non-sprawl is neighborhoods with pedestrian amenities (“Complete Streets”), and mixed uses (residences, commerce, offices, etc.). Robert Cervero, a Berkeley planner has studied the required density (11 per acre) to make transit viable in such neighborhoods.

    In other words, riders must be able to walk to stops in sufficient numbers to make transit economically viable.

    Sprawl builds in obstacles to all of the above. It’s lower density, and typically uniform units-per-acre throughout. Traditional neighborhoods offer mansions next to eight plexes, so compatible building sizes with different incomes and units-per-acre.

    Sprawl streets are designed exclusively for autos. Pedestrians (and bicycles) are an afterthought.

    All trips of significance, to school, or to work, must be in a car…so sprawl enforces the most regressive “tax” of all: every driving-age person must own a car or be, in effect, socially disenfranchised.

    Lest people excuse sprawl as “what the market wants”… that’s simply not true. The nicest, most desirable, most valuable real estate is typically in pre-1950s traditional, pedestrian and transit-friendly neighborhoods.

    Oh yes, and NY City (full of traditional, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods) has a lower per-capita crime rate than sprawl cities like Phoenix, so crime is not the reason sprawl exists.

    We could retrofit sprawl now, developing “town centers” in the parking lots of the malls (adding residences). That’s been economically successful too.

    And finally, if FNMA / FHLMC made all new permanent financing for any development begun after a certain date contingent on the design being pedestrian-friendly, mixed use, sprawl would effectively be a thing of the past.

    Keep up the good work. Gated communities and sprawl are bad for society’s health.

    Posted by Adam Eran


  1. One in Seven Americans Rely on Food Pantries | Eastside Baby Corner - September 24, 2014

    […] to spend their limited money – often choosing between being able to afford food and utilities, transportation, medical care, and […]