Are we ready for a “transit moment” in America?
In one way, it seems impossible. “Who cares” when three out of four of us still commute in a car, alone? And then there’s money: Federal transit assistance may well be on the chopping block of a cut-hungry Congress. State and local budgets are so pinched that regional bus and rail agencies already face serious service cuts and deferred maintenance.
But don’t despair—and think forward with hope. This was the message of a transit conference, sponsored in May in Washington by the Brookings Institution, as it unveiled a study of unprecedented detail on how transit functions in America’s top 100 metro regions.
The “transit moment” message is straightforward. Gas prices have careened back up to the $4-a-gallon range. Fuel costs for the average household will be roughly $825 higher this year than last, and this means more and more families looking for transit alternatives.
Concurrently, policymakers talk incessantly about generating new jobs to fix the country’s prolonged job deficit. The simple message they need to hear, says Brookings’ Robert Puentes: “It’s not enough to create jobs if people can’t get to them.”
But how well set up are America’s metros to maintain and expand transit?
Not very well, the Brookings study found. The economy has been decentralizing, with private employers (and often governments) spreading jobs farther and farther away from central business districts.
The result, says Bruce Katz of Brookings: We’ve created “an exit ramp economy,” distances becoming so long that “commuting has become a heroic act” with people obliged to reach jobs ever-farther from their homes.
There’s no question about transit demand—the share of Americans opting for local bus or rail, while still small compared to car use, now tops 10 billion trips a year. Public transportation demand grew in the last decade for the first time, literally, in generations.
The turnaround was driven not just by longer commutes but by ugly traffic congestion along the way. Plus aversion to higher gas costs. As well as people’s increasing interest in transit for education, shopping, recreation and health care—trends sure to increase as the retiree segment of the population balloons in the next years.
Officially, transit serves many parts of our metro areas—on average, 94 percent of cities proper, 58 percent in suburbs. But whether that transit operates well enough for commuting trips is another question. Overall, Brookings found, the typical metropolitan resident can reach only 30 percent of jobs in the metro region—and that allows for a transit ride of up to 90 minutes.
Ninety minutes is a figure middle-class folks would recoil at. But it may be the only choice for many low-income workers, many so pinched that they’re obliged to spend over 50 percent of their budgets on housing alone.
So where do we go from here? It’s time, says Puentes, for metros “to grow smart and align transport, housing, land and economic policy.”
Some ways to do that come clear from the Brookings study—unprecedented and massive, covering 100 metros, 371 transit providers and 500 gigabytes of data. Some regions do substantially better than others in connecting workers to jobs. And it’s not just a function of the size of transit budgets, modes of transit or total miles. The equally big issue is how a region is laid out—and how it has grown in recent years.
By this measure, metros in the Western states, on average, score highest in the share of working-age residents with job access by transit. The Northeast and Midwestern metros come in next. And the South, which has boasted of its big job gains of recent decades, comes in last.
Why the Western lead? It is because of urban growth boundaries such as Oregon’s, plus regions with new and expanding transit service, and a commitment to serve areas where growth is permitted, such as Salt Lake City, San Jose, Sacramento and Denver.
Bottom line for the West’s lead: smart and timely planning.
And why does the South lag so seriously? Call it anti-planning—failing to coalesce on a metropolitan basis. Such regions as Richmond, Atlanta and Chattanooga, for example, provide transit in their older, core cities, but scarcely any in the immediately adjacent suburbs.
Politely, Brookings notes that the Western cities are often hemmed in by mountains or water, conducive to more compact transit areas. And that the South has fewer natural boundaries. But it’s also true that some Southern suburbs—those surrounding Atlanta and Montgomery, for example—deliberately shunned transit as a way of distancing themselves from poor and increasingly black inner cities. Now many have ample reason to regret their choice.
But it’s also businesses, across the U.S., which chose locations for inexpensive land or closeness to executive driving communities. Now in some locations, corporations are becoming smart advocates for transit accessibility in order to recruit the best possible work forces. It’s about time.
E-mail Neal Peirce.
©2011, The Washington Post Writers Group