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Robert Puentes

Brookings: Transit Access to Jobs Is the Missing Link

1:36 PM EDT on May 13, 2011


If you’re a middle-income person living in the Philadelphia metro area, there's an 85 percent chance you live within three-quarters of a mile of a transit stop, and you probably have to wait about 12 minutes for a bus or train. But if you're looking for work, beware: only 20 percent of the jobs in the region are accessible to you via transit in a reasonable amount of time.

Older transit agencies like Philadelphia’s SEPTA are getting left behind by job sprawl, according to the Brookings Institution’s exhaustive new study on transit access to jobs. SEPTA is a hub-and-spoke system, concentrating transit access in the center city, while more and more job centers are located in the suburbs. Surprisingly, Brookings concludes that some sprawling western cities have better transit connectivity than more compact cities, since their transit networks are designed to fit their spread-out metro areas. Most importantly, they connect suburbs to suburbs better than many traditional systems, where all transit lines meet in the city center.

Brookings scholars will tell you, mapping transit access to jobs in 100 metro areas, with data from 371 different transit providers (some of which sent their data on paper) is no easy feat -- “an act of academic masochism,” in the words of Bruce Katz, director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Project. What they came up with is the largest database ever collected in the history of Brookings. The resulting report, “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” could spur a shift in the way metropolitan areas plan transit service.

After all, there’s a difference between having a subway station or bus stop near you and having a transit system that gets you to the places you need to be. And the most important destination is the workplace. Transit is most valuable when it can take people from where they live to where the jobs are. But most regions are poorly equipped to provide that connectivity, especially for the people who would benefit the most: Low-income residents who need access to low-skill jobs.

Brookings found:

    • Nearly 70 percent of residents in large metropolitan areas live in neighborhoods with access to transit service of some kind. Transit coverage is highest in Western metro areas. Overall, it’s far better in cities and low-income communities than suburbs and high-income communities.
    • But the typical metropolitan resident can reach only about 30 percent of jobs in their region via transit in 90 minutes. Even in Washington and New York, only 37 percent of jobs are accessible to the typical commuter.
    • And it gets worse if you’re trying to get to a low- or middle-skill job. About one-quarter of these jobs are accessible via transit within 90 minutes for the typical metropolitan commuter, compared to one-third of jobs in high-skill industries, which are more concentrated in cities.
    • Western cities rank high. Fifteen of the 20 metro areas that did the best linking people to jobs via transit are in the West. Conversely, 15 of the 20 metro areas that rank lowest are in the South.

Brookings hopes transportation leaders will “make access to jobs an explicit priority in their spending and service decisions, especially given the budget pressures they face.”

Of course, the problem isn’t just that transit hasn't kept up with job sprawl: It’s the job sprawl itself. “The cost of putting housing and jobs in the wrong place, relative to transportation, is huge,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told an audience at Brookings yesterday. “Not just in environmental costs, not just out of people’s pocketbooks in terms of what they’re spending on their commutes. But economic growth costs over the long term.”

Transit finds itself “running up a down escalator,” in the words of Brookings report co-author Alan Berube, constantly trying to keep up with development patterns that don’t lend themselves to transit connectivity. In Detroit, he said, only about eight percent of jobs are within three miles of the central business district. More than 70 percent are more than 10 miles away.


Brookings scholars say we are living in a “transit moment,” and it’s hard not to agree. Transit ridership is going up for the first time in decades. High gas prices are driving people out of their cars, and bus and light rail networks are sprouting up everywhere just in time. But the report findings indicate we’re not ready for this public transit moment.

“Nationally, we face a transit paradox between transit coverage and job access,” said report co-author Robert Puentes of Brookings. “While some form of transit serves a large share of metropolitan America, that same service really does fall short in connecting residents to employment, especially when those jobs are outside of the urban core.”

Already, some metro areas, with forward-looking help from the federal government, are beginning to address the job access problem. PolicyLink, a research group focusing on social and economic equity, noted that in Kansas City, where low-income residents can only access 23 percent of the region’s jobs via transit, the region is using a Sustainable Communities Planning grant to better connect people to work, generate reinvestment and new jobs along specific corridors, and attract residents to urban centers that have been losing population.

And in the Twin Cities region, where low-income residents can access about 39 percent of jobs via transit, a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant is helping integrate commuter rail, two light rail lines, and a bus rapid transit system to connect residents to newly created and currently existing job centers around each transit corridor.

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