Public transit problems run deeper than access alone, Brookings says

According to a new Brookings study, there is a transit paradox in our country: 70% of citizens in large metropolitan centers can access public transportation but can only get to 30% of the jobs in their area. Based on first-of-its-kind research utilizing data from the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, Brookings has been able to show empirically that America’s transit problems go beyond aging infrastructure and require a fundamental shift in how we move people from place to place. CivSource spoke with one of the authors of the report, Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow, Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and Joanne Harrell, Senior Director of Microsoft State & Local Government e-Government Programs about the implications of the report and how individuals can interact with the the data that led to the findings.

Americans face a bleak landscape as they try to recover from the damage inflicted by the recession – home values have gone down, jobs have shifted or disappeared, all while food and gas prices have steadily increased. Americans looking for work are casting a wider net in their job search and those still with jobs are facing higher than ever gas prices as they try to get to work each day. Against this backdrop, Brookings researchers have examined the current state of America’s public transit systems in order to discern how Americans are interacting with them and how they might into the future.

The study pulled in data on ridership, routes and overall commute time to look at how people currently use their public transit systems to get to work and how planners might retool these options to meet future demand more effectively. Report authors also worked with technologists at Microsoft to create a unique interactive mapping tool that allows individuals to understand this data visually and see how their own metropolitan areas are impacted.

Public transit systems in the US have historically been designed to provide affordable options for travel throughout cities. More recently, these systems have grown to include bus networks and light rails that extend into some suburban areas. However, researchers have found that even if Americans live in a large metropolitan area with a robust public transit system, it does not mean that they will be able to use that system to get to work reliably within a reasonable (90 minutes or less) amount of time. Additionally, some large metropolitan transit systems may not offer access into new growth areas where jobs are, leaving job seekers with even fewer affordable ways of finding or getting to work.

These findings are particularly relevant as ridership across transit systems has increased as people look for more budget friendly travel options in light of rising gas prices. According to Puentes, the findings also point to broader problems as transit systems have been unable to catch up to sprawl, and growth trends have lead to leap-frog development that increases commute time and distance while also damaging the urban continuity needed for broad based access to jobs across incomes.

What this all amounts to is, according to Puentes, the need for a serious conversation at the state level that examines how communities intend to support their citizens as they get to work and expand economic development into new areas. In the report, researchers point to new transit systems in the West which are designed to travel larger distances and have routes that more closely track with new growth trends.

Puentes notes that these planning choices have led to the creation of surprisingly effective public transit systems in unlikely places such as Modesto, California. The system there has had historically low ridership but found itself uniquely suited to the recent uptick in its use as gas prices increased and the system provided ready access to places where people currently work. Whereas, commuters on more established transit systems like that in downtown Atlanta, Georgia are faced with increasing difficulty making it out of the center of town and into the fast growing metro area.

According to Puentes, metropolitan areas in the West have experienced new growth and are trying to find innovative and low cost ways to provide transit options – like self-help bond issues, moves which are more difficult and perhaps unlikely with older more established transit systems.

In order to keep the conversation going and make the implications clear, Brookings worked with Microsoft to provide an interactive mapping tool that allows users to examine the findings on a map and understand the impacts visually. According to Joanne Harrell at Microsoft, the partnership will include a road-show of sorts, with Brookings researchers utilizing the mapping tool to present this newly compiled data back to public officials in order to foster policy discussions around finding transit planning solutions that meet the economic needs of cities and states. The tool utilizes Bing maps and runs on Azure in partnership with EastBanc Technologies.

Puentes and the authors of the report are hopeful that the findings and the tool will help to move the conversation toward solutions that are focused on current and future metropolitan trends in order to support job growth nationwide. “People care passionately about their transit systems,” Puentes notes, “the report itself isn’t meant to be a ranking or even a criticism but rather a means of highlighting that we can’t cut transit lifelines if we intend to support people as they find, create or get to jobs.”