Study: Transit Doesn't Take Workers to Jobs

Only about 30 percent of jobs in the country's 100 largest metros are accessible via transit, according to a new Brookings report.
by | May 13, 2011
 

About 70 percent of the jobs in metropolitan areas are inaccessible via transit, according to a new study from the Brookings Institution that indicates mass transit isn’t serving the areas where it is most likely to be needed.                                             

The data reveals a striking paradox between where transit stops are located and where people work. While 70 percent of metro area residents live within three-quarters of a mile of a transit stop, only 30 percent of jobs in those metro areas can be reached via transit within 90 minutes.

The dichotomy is even more evident among low-income residents -- who, ironically, are most likely to rely on transit. While 89 percent of working-aged, low-income workers in metro areas live near transit stops, only a quarter of jobs in low- and middle-skilled industries are accessible via transit. That’s largely because of the hub-and-spoke system typical of transit that brings suburban workers with high-skill jobs downtown but doesn’t connect workers to jobs in the suburbs.

“It’s not enough to create more and better jobs if workers can’t get to them,” said Bruce Katz, who leads the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, at an event the think tank held Thursday to release the study.

About 6.5 million people rely on some form of transit as part of their daily commute, according to the report.

(The full-study is available here. Interactive graphics showing transit transit coverage and job accessibility for each of the 100 metros are available here.) 

The massive analysis, based studies of transit stops and schedules from 371 transit providers in 100 metro areas, is the first of its kind, according to the authors. The study took two years to conduct and involved the largest database of data that Brookings has worked with besides the Census.

The report comes at a time when many localities are struggling to fund their transit systems, and the types of state and federal aid that can help pick up the slack is becoming increasingly tight. Nevertheless, as gas becomes more expensive (it will cost families $825 more in 2011 than it did in 2010) and the population grows (by 130 million by 2050), now is “not the time to severe the lifeline” that connects millions of workers to jobs, according to Brookings.

Instead, they’re advocating for investment in transit, with a focus on considering the locations of jobs during the planning process.

Alan Berube, a senior fellow at Brookings and one of the study’s authors, said the disconnect between where jobs are located and where transit operates is due largely to the fact that many are “legacy” systems designed decades ago that haven’t taken recent growth patterns into consideration.

The report's authors have advocated for the creation of a federal-metropolitan partnership that would develop a standardized database to help communities make decisions based on relevant data.

As congressional lawmakers craft a new transportation bill, the federal government can play a role in making jobs more accessible by transit through grants that reward that type of planning, said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at Brookings and an author of the study.

The study also encourages increased routes between suburban areas, which are especially inaccessible for commuters. Just 22 percent of jobs in suburban parts of metros are accessible via transit, even though 63 percent of metro jobs are located there.

The report also noted regional differences between transit systems. Fifteen of the 20 metro areas that performed the best in the study were in the west, where communities have extensive bus networks to the suburbs and advanced growth management techniques.

Meanwhile, 18 of the 20 worst performers are in the South. Transit systems in those cities typically lack suburban coverage, and the cities themselves tend not to have innovative growth management policies. On top of that, Southern cities lack the geographic features that prevent sprawl in similar cities in the West.

Many communities in the Midwest and Northeast also have fragmented transit systems that end at their political boundaries, which makes coordination difficult. In many communities in the west, a single transit agency serves a whole region, making planning a more straight-forward process.

Being an old, established transit system also doesn’t guarantee good access to jobs. Chicago and Philadelphia, for example, rank lower in the Brookings study than places like San Jose, Honolulu, Salt Lake City and Tucson, which have high rankings for job access across skill levels.

Below are Brooking’s rankings listing the best and worst metro areas, based on residents' access to transit and transit accessibility of jobs. The full list is available in the report.

 Best

1) Honolulu, HI

2) San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA

3) Salt Lake City, UT

4) Tucson, AZ

5) Fresno, CA

6) Denver-Aurora, CO

7) Albuquerque, NM

8) Las Vegas-Paradise, NV

9) Provo-Orem, UT

10) Modesto, CA

....

 Worst

91) Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA

92) Richmond, VA

93) Greenville-Mauldin-Easley, SC

94) Birmingham-Hoover, AL

95) Knoxville, TN

96) Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA

97) Y oungstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA

98) Augusta-Richmond County, GA-SC

99) Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL

100) Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, NY

 

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