US Transit Provides Unsatisfactory Access to Jobs

How well does our transit system connect where people live to where the jobs are? Not at all well, according to a new Brookings Institute report, Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metro America. While most urban jobs are near transit, most employees are not.

The report presents a comprehensive database that provides the first comparable, detailed look at transit coverage and connectivity across the country’s major metropolitan areas. This study encompassed 371 transit providers in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

In an interview, the author Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, explained that when they analyzed the transit service within those 100 cities, the results at first appeared quite good. It was about a 70% coverage rate. But when they looked at the job connectivity in those areas, much lower rates were revealed: only 30% of jobs were available via transit to the typical metropolitan commuter. “We definitely have some work to do”, stressed Puentes.

Which regions are doing well, which regions need to do better?

Places in the west are doing better, cities such as Denver, Sacramento, and Salt Lake City are pushing the envelope, and formulating more progressive land use policies. Cities In the southern region of the United States, such as Birmingham, Greenville, and Chattanooga have the poorest public transit infrastructure. Few of these cities have established public policy addressing how to connect metropolitan growth patterns to jobs and infrastructure investments.

Job access varies significantly from one metropolitan area to another. 60% of Honolulu residents commute via transit, while only 7% of Palm Springs residents use public transit to get to work.

Places suffering from job sprawl are difficult to connect via public transit, and this disproportionately affects low-income communities. Only one-quarter of jobs in low and middle skill industries are accessible via transit, compared to one-third of jobs in high-skill industries.

The report recommends that Federal government can utilize these findings to properly allocate funding to cities based on merit. While this might seem to suggest that cities with the poorest public transit infrastructure (such as those in the South) should receive priority, the report also recommends that cities that are working toward creating greater connectivity across the entire metropolitan area should be first to receive access to federal funding. This suggests that priority should be given to metro areas formulating more progressive land use policies, such as those in the West.

What can federal and state governments do?

The report concludes: “These trends have three broad implications for leaders at the local, regional, state, and national levels. Transportation leaders should make access to jobs an explicit priority in their spending and service decisions, especially given the budget pressures they face. Metro leaders should coordinate strategies regarding land use, economic development, and housing with transit decisions in order to ensure that transit reaches more people and more jobs efficiently. And federal officials should collect and disseminate standardized transit data to enable public, private, and non-profit actors to make more informed decisions and ultimately maximize the benefits of transit for labor markets.”

Puentes emphasized the importance of continued investment in transit infrastructure. “We need to maintain the lifeline these jobs provide, especially for low income families trying to access jobs… “Unlike other countries, the United States is continuing to grow. If we are facing a low-carbon future, we have to think about the connection between housing, transportation, infrastructure, and jobs placement.” This growth is largely going to be occurring in the west, intermountain west, and also in the south. Those cities with a range of different transit infrastructure are going to fare much better in the 21st century.