Skip to Content

Access to Public Transit: Necessary but not Sufficient

When people think of extensive public transit systems, New York City, Washington, DC, and Chicago frequently come to mind. But according to a new report by the Brookings Institution, they rank 13th, 17th, and 46th, respectively, when you consider how well a transit system connects people with jobs. Instead, when pondering top transit systems, we should be thinking about Honolulu, San Jose, and Salt Lake City, it seems.

The authors of Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America analyze transit systems in the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. and rank each on two measures: the share of the working-age population that lives within three-quarters of a mile of transit access; and the share of employment opportunities that a rider can reach on transit in less than 90 minutes (a fairly high bar). The study finds that roughly 70 percent of the working-age population in the metros studied has at least limited access to transit. However, thanks in part to the suburbanization of both people and jobs, a transit rider is within a 90-minute commute of only 30 percent of the jobs in these regions.
In terms of access, low-income neighborhoods are at a significant advantage to others. Nearly 90 percent of the working-age population in these metros has access to transit, which makes sense because these neighborhoods are often located in more densely developed, centralized locations that are easier to serve with transit. These same neighborhoods also have access to a greater share of regional jobs after a 90-minute commute, but at 36 percent, the share is still remarkably low. And because more high-skill jobs have remained in the cities (near transit) than low-skill opportunities, residents in low-income neighborhoods can access 40 percent of the former but only 32 percent of the latter.

 As with most societal conundrums, the policy implications to address this issue are almost too numerous to count. Depending on your perspective, any or all of the following may make some sense: expanding public transit to better link job-rich suburbs with job-poor areas; offering tax incentives to attract businesses to neighborhoods with few opportunities; encouraging affordable housing development in close proximity to job centers; or implementing stricter land-use controls to prevent our metro areas from sprawling still further.
But as we tackle this issue as a society, let us not forget that having a short commute to a wealth of employment opportunities is not synonymous with getting and keeping a job. In addition to investing in the built environment, we should also make parallel investments in human capital. An improved transit system and an expanded affordable housing stock are necessary to connect low- and moderate-income families with employment, but they are not sufficient unless they are complemented by strong educational systems and job training programs that make employment not simply reachable but attainable.
Refine Topics