Public Transit Systems Don’t Always Connect Workers to Jobs

7.19.12 | Three years after the recession officially ended, the jobs numbers remain pretty weak. And while some economists are talking about “skills mismatch” and the need for better training and workforce development programs, a helpful analysis from Brookings this month takes a different angle: public transit.

Thanks to our robust investment in highways over the years, pretty much every job is accessible by car today, but this is not the case with our nation’s buses, trains, and rail lines.

And as jobs move out to the suburbs, our workplaces are getting farther away, on average. The nation’s average distance to work jumped from 9.9 miles in 1983 to 13.3 miles in 2009. With gas prices and the cost of owning and maintaining a car going up, researchers say we’d be smart to take another look—and not just at transit coverage itself, but at how well our transit investments are linking up with land use and development patterns.

In her report, “Where the Jobs Are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit,” Brookings researcher Adi Tomer presents the results of a year-long investigation into 371 transit providers in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. She finds that while metro areas are doing a good job of making sure jobs are in places that are accessible by transit (more than three-quarters of all jobs in the 100 largest metropolitan areas are in neighborhoods with transit service), they do less well connecting people to these jobs. In other words, the job might be near a transit hub, but our homes are not.

“The typical job is accessible to only about 27 percent of its metropolitan workforce by transit in 90 minutes or less,” the researchers find.  So if you don’t have a car, it’s going to be very, very difficult to get to work every day.

Cities and regions in the West, interestingly, performed a little bit better on this metric (the Salt Lake City region had the best performance overall, likely due to investments in dense development and transit infrastructure.)

In a blog post, Tomer says researchers found successful models in places like Los Angles, Milwaukee, and Las Vegas:

Many metropolitan areas display impressive performances, often flying in the face of conventional wisdom. Los Angeles, the archetypal home of the automobile and highway culture, scores the largest share of jobs within reach of transit service. Milwaukee, a major transit battleground, succeeds in connecting employers to nearly half of metropolitan workers. Las Vegas and its top-15 access ranking prove that transit can work within suburban development if an agency designs routes to match.

On the other hand, places like Dallas, Miami, and Atlanta all had very poor access to work via transit because of sprawl and deconcentrated development patterns.

One of the most interesting findings  is that some cities with the best transit coverage, like Chicago, didn’t perform all that well when the researchers looked at transit access (how well the transportation did at connecting the workers to the jobs.)

For example, Chicago achieves the 18th best coverage rate due to extensive city and suburban transit networks. The coverage is especially impressive considering that 67 percent of jobs are more than 10 miles from downtown Chicago. However, those long distances between communities make it difficult for jobs to reach labor clear-across the metropolitan area, leading to an access ranking of 53rd.

We’ve written quite a bit here about the suburbanization of poverty and the difficulties low-income families face in accessing needed social services and jobs. In addition, work by Elizabeth Kneebone and others has shown that jobs are increasingly moving away from the city centers—45 percent of our jobs are now at least 10 miles from metros’ central business districts.

This report found that this suburbanization is making it harder for transit to connect workers to job opportunities and jobs to local labor pools.

“The typical city job is accessible to 38.2 percent of metropolitan working age residents,” the report found, “whereas for suburban jobs the figure is only 17.3 percent of residents.”

If you live in one suburb, traveling to another suburb for a job is difficult.

Results show we need to invest in transportation infrastructure, both in physical things like bike sharing and rails lines, but also, Tomer says, success depends on cities investing in data infrastructure so that planners have the best information possible with which to make well-informed decisions about transportation needs. Also, planners should collaborate more with officials from other public agencies and those in the private sector, and most  importantly, they must think and plan regionally.

“Accessibility is about more than just transportation,” the report notes. “Accessibility is about a built environment where land use and transportation work in concert.”

Read the full brief at Brookings.

Photo Ruth/ Flickr.

One Response to Public Transit Systems Don’t Always Connect Workers to Jobs

  1. genae says:

    This shit is getting more and more challenging everyday! !! Noboddy has the money to pay forr gas anymore which increases the amount of people using public transit. Now thats even getting hard to access… smh.. whats the world ccoming to? .. i know what its coming to…AN END!