Suburban Poverty and the Transit Connection

Today on the Streetsblog Network, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic looks at the new Brookings Institution report on suburban poverty levels and the connection to future transportation planning in those regions. Freemark, who recently wrote about how the city of Paris is extending its transit infrastructure to its traditionally lower-income suburbs, points out that the challenges to transit in American suburbs are greater. The infrastructure of American suburbs, as well as the governmental planning mechanisms, present significant challenges to reducing automobile dependence — a dependence that weighs especially heavily on people with low incomes. Freemark writes:

212413348_bc6fd150ea.jpgTransit in American suburbs faces challenges. (Photo: richpix via Flickr)

Thus far, few metropolitan areas have responded adequately to the
transportation concerns that will progressively manifest themselves;
while central-city-oriented transit networks are promoted vigorously,
the concerns of suburbs are sidelined (including by this site). This
condition seems unlikely to improve, with few metropolitan areas
actually planning as a region, unlike Paris, where transportation planning and financing is conducted from the regional level.

There are major differences between the U.S. and France: American
suburbs are incredibly sprawled-out, which means that high-quality,
high-capacity transit would be both inefficient and inappropriate in
most places. Indeed, U.S. poverty can increasingly be defined as a car-dependent one

— which means that expecting to address transportation needs of the
least well-off in the suburbs through better public transportation will
be a failure in the short-term. This also means, unfortunately, that
policies that increase costs of driving will fall directly on a large
number of the working poor.

The development of a more equitable and sustainable transportation
system demands an intense effort to densify and pedestrianize the same
suburbs that are rapidly becoming economically diverse. We cannot
continue allowing — and often subsidizing — people to live in isolated
cul-de-sac neighborhoods completely inaccessible to anything by
anything but a private automobiles. We must construct new town centers
in suburban communities with essential services and mixed-income
housing accessible via transit to urban cores. The current trends,
enforced by local, state, and national planning decisions, are
producing a lower class that spends far too much on private
transportation.

It’s a reckless course barreling straight towards increasing inequality.

More from around the network: Rustwire.com takes a jab at creative-class promoter Richard Florida and his prescriptions for struggling cities. Cyclelicious tips a hat to the legacy of Donald Appleyard‘s classic book, "Livable Streets." And the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation reports on a study showing that helmet laws discourage cycling.

  • Until gas prices go way up, I don’t think there is much hope for reforming the suburbs. Don’t move there and if you live there now, move away fast.

  • Wonder if the costs of owning a car (insurance, maintenance, registration, etc.) means giving up food, housing, clothing, etc. is more likely for the suburban person that the more inner-city person, who would go without the car entirely.

  • Andrew

    It’s important to remember what your goals are. If your goal is truly to provide mobility for lower income groups in the suburbs, the sad fact is that leasing vehicles and giving them to people who can’t afford them is often cheaper than providing point-to-point public transit service in the suburbs. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t own a car and get around by public transit, and love big cities. But there’s a slight implication in the article that poor people in suburbs need public transit. What they really need is affordable mobility, which may or may not be best provided by traditional public transport.

  • One little change that costs very little, but might have big effects is rezoning. Simply allowing sprawled-out, single-use parts of suburbs to become places of business will make a big improvement in their lives. A lot of the poor will still require automobiles, but if governments let a cluster of split levels become stores and offices, like midcentury planners did to townhouses, that could pave the way for future growth and a reduction on some of the burden. They might still need an automobile for work, but it’s less than today.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Ironic to look at zoning (apparently up-zoning) as a way to increase transit accessibility when in the outer boroughs down-zoning has become such a catch-solution for the same politicians that complain about being under-served by the MTA. Just sayin’. The political costs are apparently quite substantial.

  • Ian Turner

    Andrew: I’m pretty sure it would be cheaper to just not build sprawling suburbs in the first place.

  • True, I was not looking at political costs. But politicians are fickle creatures that will adjust if enough people get grumpy. (theoretically)

  • J:Lai

    Trying to make US suburbs more transit oriented or more walkable is a lost cause. It would be cheaper to abandon them and build new housing in existing transit/walkable cities and towns. Much like toxic debt on bank balance sheets, investments in un-livable suburbs just need to be written off.
    (Some of the older suburbs of the older cities do not necessarily fall into this category, but the vast majority of “sprawl” suburbs do.)

  • It’s important to remember what your goals are. If your goal is truly to provide mobility for lower income groups in the suburbs, the sad fact is that leasing vehicles and giving them to people who can’t afford them is often cheaper than providing point-to-point public transit service in the suburbs.

    Well, I’m skeptical, but even if that’s the case, mobility is not our only goal. We also want livable streets and to reduce pollution and carnage, and conserve energy. Plus, mobility is not the true goal, access is.

  • That was a great post!
    Thanks!

  • Actually, W.K., it’s just as likely that poor people are going to skimp on car maintenance, insurance, and registration. Registration stickers are easily stolen from cars parked at parking lots, the level of uninsured drivers can reach 50% in some neighborhoods, and as long as the car runs, who cares if it is spewing toxic smoke out of the back? Of course, when you do license and registration stops, you snare a lot of people who can’t legally get driver’s licenses, because they aren’t even supposed to be in the country in the first place – so the specter of the poor driving themselves to work, but skimping on food, is not as common as you think.

  • Not all suburbs are equally hopeless. The older suburbs, which are where poverty is increasing, often have grid patterns and streets that at least in principle could be made walkable. In the New York area, these include the entire South Shore of Long Island, the parts of Westchester close to the Long Island Sound, and North Jersey between the Northern Branch and Paterson. In such areas, densification is a matter of subdividing large tract homes into apartments, and later on permitting taller apartment buildings.

    Even without an increase in density, public transit can be useful if done right. The gold standard should be Calgary’s light rail, built at $2,400 per passenger.

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