Transportation’s Poverty-Fighting Potential

Experts agree that that there's a crucial link. On Nov. 8, Indianapolis' voters will decide if they buy the argument.
October 31, 2016
By Daniel G. Haake  |  Contributor
A nationally recognized transportation expert and consultant

Americans will be doing a lot more than electing a new president on Nov. 8. They also will be voting on a host of local ballot measures that will profoundly shape their communities for decades to come. Transportation is one of the issues at the top of that agenda. Fully $200 billion in proposed transit investments will be decided in local referendums, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

While many of these proposals are focused on expanding transit in cities like Atlanta and Seattle that already have robust systems, some cities are hoping to transform and improve their transit services in ways that specifically leverage the power of transportation to alleviate poverty. Nowhere is that issue more at the forefront than Indianapolis.

Over the past 40 years, bold public investment has transformed Indianapolis from a sleepy Midwestern state capital into a world-class city. But Indianapolis has significant challenges. While local unemployment is down near 4 percent, per-capita income has decreased as well-paying jobs that disappeared during the Great Recession have been replaced by low-paying ones. One in five Indianapolis residents now lives in poverty -- the local poverty rate is up 27 percent since the end of the recession -- and more Indianapolis residents experience food insecurity than in any other county in Indiana.

While Indianapolis' current mayor, Joe Hogsett, has not taken a stance on the link between transit and poverty, several of his predecessors have focused on using transportation as a critical tool for turning around those depressing statistics. They have plenty of support from experts who have identified transportation as the single strongest factor in escaping poverty -- more important than crime, student test scores or the prevalence of single-parent households.

Studies have found that areas having limited access to transit have significantly lower incomes than neighborhoods that have access to transit linking them to jobs. And the Federal Highway Administration has found that households that live in poverty are three times more likely to use transit than higher-income groups. Yet in Indianapolis, only 2 percent of all residents take the bus to work.

November's Indianapolis ballot measure centers on whether to impose a new 0.25 percent economic-development income-tax that would generate revenue to increase bus frequency by 70 percent, extend service hours, create a grid pattern for more efficient transfers, and add three bus rapid transit lines. Supporters argue that these four improvements would dramatically improve the ability of existing and future residents to rely on transit for their day-to-day needs.

There is a vocal opposition, not only from those who oppose any tax increase but also from those who do not believe that there is demand for increased transit in the region. In addition, the proposed bus rapid transit lines have raised concerns about parking and traffic flow.

On Nov. 8, Indianapolis voters will be sorting those issues out for themselves. Whatever they decide, it's likely that the link between transportation and poverty will remain part of the national conversation about infrastructure for a long time to come.