Helpful mapping tools for transit-oriented development planning and research

Two new(ish) tools are available for gauging the role of public transit, one from the Center for Transit-Orietned Development, and the other from Brookings (which I blogged about here). The latter is taking some heat, however.

The Center for Transit-Oriented Development has created a mapping/database tool–the National TOD Database— that allows planners, developers, government officials, and academics to  find economic and demographic information for every existing and proposed transit station in the United States.  Plug in Chicago CTA, for example, and it shows each stop on all lines. Click the stop’s icon and it shows the population within a half-mile of the station (as well as a larger “shed” area), the number of jobs in that area, and the median income. The map includes 3,776 existing stations and 833 proposed stations in47 metropolitan areas as of December 2009.

The database is one tool in the organization’s arsenal of identifying “job sprawl” and its link to driving and congestion in metro areas. Linking employment to transit is imperative, the organization argues, if cities are to be more sustainable and healthier. The organization has also developed an “affordability index” that can be used to calculate the combined cost of housing and transportation in regions with transit — a more accurate measure of affordability than housing costs alone.

On that same topic, the Brookings Institution got some heat for its recent study on transit-job connection, Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metro America. The tool and accompanying report allowed viewers to see how cities stacked up in being able to connect workers to jobs via public transit. Critics have wondered, among other things, how on earth Modesto, CA, could outperform New York City in public transport.

But as Brookings explains in this post, the “ranking” is not ranking the transit system itself. Rather, “the performance of metro areas in our rankings had much more to do with the physical arrangement of their employment and population centers than with the size or extent of their transit systems. In most U.S. metro areas, decades of low density, spread-out growth have resulted in massivedecentralization of jobs, and limited alignment with the location of transit.”

Turns out Modest0 is marginally better positioned to get workers to jobs via transit than metropolitan New York.  Part of the confusion comes from the term “metro area.” To the average Joe on the street, “metro” connotes “city,” and city means the center of the city, not the suburbs. Therefore New Yorkers are stumped as to why Modesto outperforms them. I remember standing in line at an airport counter listening to two strangers talk about where they were from, and the woman ahead of me said, Chicago. Turns out she lived in Libertyville, but she claimed Chicago. It irked me then– a city dweller who had not decamped to the burbs–but really, in retrospect, we’re all part of the same big metro area. I could work at Motorola in Libertyville almost as easily as she could work at a job in the Loop downtown (about an hour trip by Metra). That’s what the Brookings study is getting at: how easily you can get to jobs from where you’re at in a metro area, and by “metro area” they mean the big sprawl that has become our major cities today.

As for New York, transit:job connections are great if you live in the city itself. But beyond those borders, one in five (20%) residents of New York’s suburbs has no access to transit; and that for those who do, the typical commuter can reach only 22 percent of the region’s jobs within 90 minutes via transit. Modesto does a better job at connecting workers to jobs via public transit.

The bigger issue that critics have lobbed is that places like Modesto might have state-of-the-art transit systems but if it’s still quicker to hop in the car, then people will hop in the car. If it’s still only an 8-minute drive across town when the transit trip takes 30 minutes, who wouldn’t drive? It gives you 22 more minutes to sleep in the morning. Indeed, Brookings is taking on this question in its future studies.

All are valid points, especially in this climate of limited budgets and no mood for new taxes, coupled with high unemployment and rising gas prices. We need thoughtful debate on how to move forward, and this discussion is a great start. Stay tuned.

One Response to Helpful mapping tools for transit-oriented development planning and research

  1. Marian Gillis says:

    Excellent conversation that needs to be heard by all. Imagine what we can learn from each other by looking objectively at essential job/transit connections.

    We could take that real knowledge and redevelop infrastructure that serves each household with a paycheck,the building block in each local economy.