Transit Accessibility to Jobs for Metro Areas Examined

A Brookings Institution study shows jobs are largely inaccessible to the nation's suburban workforce via transit. View data for 100 metro areas.
by | July 16, 2012 AT 9:00 AM
David Kidd

When American workers first began to flock to suburbs, transit systems provided an alternative to getting behind the wheel and driving into cities. But as companies gradually built new facilities in outlying areas, public transportation became no longer a viable option for much of the nation’s growing suburban workforce.

A recent Brookings Institution study sheds light on the effects of this shift, finding that only 27 percent of metropolitan workers can access their jobs via transit in 90 minutes or less. The study's results show wide variations among areas based on concentration of employers, land use and other factors.

"This kind of physical stratification of people and jobs has really complicated our ability to connect to one another," said Brookings Senior Research Associate Adie Tomer, who authored the study.

Tomer analyzed employment data, demographics and transit system routes for the largest 100 metropolitan areas to assess transit coverage and job accessibility. The analysis shows most metro area residents -- more than three-quarters -- live in neighborhoods with transit, but suburban workers enjoy far less accessibility compared to city commuters.

About 63 percent of the total jobs in the 100 metro areas surveyed were located outside the city in suburban areas. As the gap has widened, many often cash-strapped transit agencies have yet to expand to these outlying areas.

Salt Lake City boasts the highest labor access rate in the study, with 64.1 percent of the workforce able to commute to their jobs via public transportation in 90 minutes.

Officials in other areas have also worked to adapt to this suburbanization of jobs.

"They realize that it’s not just this hub system where all the roots are coming downtown. Society isn’t organized this way,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president of research and policy for the American Public Transportation Association.

Guzzetti told Governing he agrees with the general premise of the study that transit isn’t a feasible option for many suburban workers; however, he cautioned that the analysis should not be used to grade or rank regional transit systems. Some systems, for example, aren't responsible for serving an entire metro region. Others weren't intended to connect all suburban neighborhoods, Guzzetti said.

Land use and sprawl must also be considered. "The suburbs themselves have to be more transit-friendly, and part of that is design,” he said.

Furthermore, employers occasionally build large facilities in hopes of luring transit, but this is difficult to accomplish if transit lines are already in place.

“I think some people make those decisions, and then think about transportation choices later, which is the wrong way to look at it,” Guzzetti said.

The Brookings analysis found workers in some industries enjoy far better access to transit than others. Those working in finance, insurance and real estate -- all jobs typically located in downtown areas -- were shown to have the highest transit job coverage in the study.

Transit advocates got a boost earlier this month from the passage of the federal transportation bill, which provides two years of funding for highways and other infrastructure. The California state Senate also recently approved construction of the nation's first dedicated high-speed rail, and northern Virginia legislators similarly gave the green light for rail expansion to Dulles International Airport in June.

Many current demographic and social trends point toward a growing demand for transit, Guzzetti said. In many regions, cities are rebounding after decades of population decline. Young people, in particular, typically utilize public transit more than older adults.

While suburbanization of jobs accelerated in recent decades, recent census estimates suggest the recession may have halted this shift. Still, Tomer emphasized more research is needed to determine the extent to which any jobs moved back to cities.

In years past, analyses similar to the Brookings study weren't possible as transit agency data was often not tracked. Tomer said those in the transportation community are now generally aware of the consequences of job suburbanization, but greater attention must be paid to the issue as it is still unknown to some policymakers.

“Because accessibility analyses are not required by laws, we are missing out on opportunities to understand how well our metropolitan economics physically link,” he said.


Enter a metro area below or sort data to compare rates for different areas. Detailed figures for each community are available on the Brookings Institution website.