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Brookings Report Reveals How Well Transit Systems Connect People to Job Opportunities

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Yesterday, the Center for Transit-Oriented Development (CTOD) released two papers on employment centers and their relationship to transit, which highlight the importance of connecting people of all incomes to job opportunities in all industries via transit. Today, the Brookings Institution released a report further documenting this critical link between jobs and transit, revealing the extent to which the transit networks in the nation’s largest 100 metropolitan areas are connecting residents to job opportunities.

The Brookings report, entitled Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America, analyzed route and schedule information from 371 transit systems in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, and categorized this data by three primary metrics: transit coverage, service frequency, and job access. The authors then compared these metrics in each of the 100 regions by census tract, looking at differences in household income (low-, middle-, and high-income), and employment skill level (low-, middle-, and high-skill level jobs).

Some of the key findings include:

  • While 70% of people in these 100 regions have access to public transportation in their neighborhood, only 30% of jobs are accessible via public transportation within a 90-minute commute.
  • Cities have better transit coverage than suburbs, with 94% of city residents in these 100 regions living in a neighborhood with transit coverage, compared to 58% of suburban residents. Yet suburbs now contain more than two-thirds of working-age residents, and the majority of low-income households now live in the suburbs.
  • Low-income neighborhoods overall have better access to public transportation, but the types of jobs available via public transportation are predominantly high-skill jobs. In the city, 46% of high-skill jobs are within a 90-minute commute, compared to 36% of low- and middle-skill jobs. In the suburbs, 24% of high-skill jobs are within a 90-minute commute, compared to 19% of low- and middle-skill jobs. Overall, residents of low-income neighborhoods can reach just one-fifth of low- and middle-skill jobs via transit within a 90-minute commute. Thus, there is a spatial mismatch between the types of workers who have good transit coverage and the skills needed for jobs that are the most accessible via transit.
  • Most transit networks are hub-and-spoke systems, which favors people who work downtown. Because many jobs downtown are high-skill jobs, transit networks tend to favor more affluent, suburban residents.
  • Regions in the Western U.S., which tend to have newer transit systems, provide better transit connections for workers of all types. The results for older, more established transit systems were mixed.

Robert Puentes, co-author of the report, noted at the press conference announcing the report that “Job number one is getting Americans to their jobs.” Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood wrote in an article on the Huffington Post that he couldn’t agree more, and highlighted the work of the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a joint effort of HUD, DOT, and EPA, to improve the link between jobs and transit in regions across the country, especially for low-income residents. LaHood specifically mentioned some of the regions that received HUD Sustainable Communities grants or DOT TIGER II grants in fall 2010, and states that one of the smartest things that regions can do to help residents deal with high gas prices is to improve transit service to get people from where they live to where they work. 

The Brookings report also acknowledges the need for better data on transit systems so that planners and policymakers can make more informed decisions. Most importantly, the report highlights the need for a national database of information on transit service that includes spatial geography. This could help federal and state programs make better investment decisions if they could compare transit systems and future projects using a standard methodology. The Pew Charitable Trust and Rockefeller Foundation have also called for a better cataloging of transportation spending performance that could go hand in hand with better geographic data.  We at Reconnecting America, which is a partner in the Center for TOD, agree with this stance, especially since the National TOD Database would be bolstered by better nationally comparable data.

The report also highlights how the hub-and-spoke design of many twentieth century transit networks is no longer meeting the needs of those who need public transportation most, as an increasing number of employers, as well as low-income households, have moved to suburban areas. There also needs to be better coordination of local development to meet the needs of workers and employers. 

The full report is available here.

An interactive map and regional fact sheets are also available on the report website.

The two CTOD papers can be found here.