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.

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transportation equity