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New Evidence Links Transit Cuts With Poverty and Unemployment

When bus service was eliminated for five years in Clayton County, in the Atlanta metro area, residents endured substantial increases in poverty and unemployment rates.

In Brief:
  • Clayton County, Ga., saw poverty and unemployment rise during a five-year period when it had no transit access to Atlanta, according to a new study.

  • The study’s findings support the “spatial mismatch” theory, which holds that poor transit access leads to fewer job opportunities and lower incomes for residents.

  • Researchers say there are strong links between transit access and economic outcomes, with important differences in bus, rail and other transit modes.

  • In 2010, amid budget pressures stemming from the 2008 housing market crash and ensuing recession, Clayton County, Ga., canceled its bus service.

    Clayton is a majority-Black county in the southern part of the Atlanta metropolitan area, with a poverty rate of almost 20 percent. It’s not connected to the city by rail, and before 2010, bus service was its only major means of public transit. The buses cost about $10 million a year to run and only collected about a fifth of that amount back in fare revenue, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

    For the five years following the demise of the service, which was called C-Tran, Clayton County residents had no public transit access to Atlanta. MARTA, the city’s larger transit service, began running buses in the county again in 2015. In the half-decade interim, the county endured “substantial increases in poverty and unemployment rates” which are explained by the loss of bus access, according to new research published last month in the journal Urban Studies.

    The cancellation of bus service was a blow to Clayton County. For researchers, however, it was a rare opportunity to study the links between access to public transit and economic outcomes like poverty and unemployment, says Fei Li, an assistant professor in the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University and lead author of the paper. The circumstances provided a kind of “natural experiment,” the paper says. It’s often hard to isolate the economic effects of certain events, like the pandemic or natural disasters, because they happen over large areas and affect lots of communities in the same way. But in the case of Clayton County, the researchers were able to compare census tracts that initially had bus access and then lost it with demographically similar tracts that weren’t affected by the cuts.

    Li and her co-author, Christopher Kajetan Wyczalkowski, used a “difference-in-difference” method to observe how poverty and unemployment rates changed between 2010 and 2014 in different census tracts. They found that “losing all bus stops in a census tract leads to a 5.1 percentage point increase in the poverty rate and a 4.5 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate,” according to the paper.

    The findings explore two divergent but overlapping theories in urban research. One is known as spatial mismatch, which holds that lack of transit access limits access to jobs and puts low-income residents at an extra disadvantage. The other, residential sorting, holds that lower-income households tend to move to areas with better transit access over time. The Clayton County experience suggests that both phenomena could be at play, but shows stronger evidence for spatial mismatch, Li says. While it’s not possible to conclude exactly how the loss of bus access affected individual families, it’s likely that some residents lost access to existing jobs or job opportunities because of the cuts.

    Especially for low-income people and communities of color, transit is “an essential part of the infrastructure, and for now it’s underprovided in most American cities,” Li says.

    It can be tough to separate the effects of mismatch and sorting trends, but it’s really “a long-term/short-term question,” says Justin Tyndall, an assistant professor in the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. In the short term after service cuts, people lose access to jobs and opportunities; but over a much longer timeline, people tend to choose neighborhoods that suit their economic needs and that they can afford, Tyndall says.

    Tyndall published a study in 2017 looking at how the temporary loss of the R subway line in New York City after Hurricane Sandy affected poverty and unemployment. His study found similar results to the Clayton County study, though the changes were smaller, possibly because New York generally has more transit options.

    “Reductions in transit service are definitely harmful to economic outcomes. In these cases, people have already made location decisions based on the assumption of transit access,” Tyndall says.

    The mode of transit service matters though. While poor families tend to live closer to bus service, the effects are reversed with flashier and more expensive services like urban light rail, Tyndall says. Higher-educated and higher-paid workers tend to congregate around light rail-accessible neighborhoods, which raises employment rates — and rents — in those areas, while lowering poverty. But the displacement impacts of light rail amenities can actually reduce overall employment across a wider area, by pushing lower-income people to neighborhoods with worse transit access, Tyndall has found.

    In general, there’s strong evidence from a variety of research fields that transit access supports good economic outcomes, and that cuts to transit service are economically harmful. It’s important to highlight evidence of those links as U.S. transit agencies face some of their most dire financial challenges in years, Li says.

    “This is a hard time for transit overall,” Li says. “I don’t think we can afford as a country or a region to have public transit fail because of the pandemic. I think that will have really long-term consequences.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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