The Avenue

Transit and Jobs: Better Than You Thought and Worse Than You Hoped

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Light rail to the D-Backs is not the primary purpose of public transitLast fall, I left my rather antiquated PDA behind and finally joined the ranks of iPhone users (thank you, Brookings). An iPhone 4, no less.

A lot about it was better than I ever imagined. Text messages in alternating color bubbles? Take a video and upload it straight to YouTube? Actually see html content in my emails? Are you kidding me??

But it’s not called an iEverything. It’s an iPhone. And so it’s rather ironic--but not surprising to the initiated (and the haters)--that the phone part is not exactly the device’s strong suit. (I joined before the whole Verizon thing, so that could have something to do with it.) Dropped calls are a not-infrequent fact of life now. And then there’s the whole typing thing … I’m getting used to it, but I do have to write emails a LOT more than, say, use Urbanspoon.

I thought about all this as we were getting ready to unveil our new report today on transit and jobs in metropolitan America. My colleagues spent two years putting together a database of public transit systems--371 in total--that operate in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. We examined who in these metro areas has access to transit, and how many jobs you can reach via that transit in a reasonable amount of time.

On one hand, transit covers more people than I thought it did.  Fully seven in 10 working-age people in metro areas live within three-quarters of a mile of a transit stop. Despite massive suburbanization of the U.S. population in recent decades, transit is well within reach of most large-metro commuters. That was as pleasantly surprising as finding the app that allowed me to live-stream “This American Life” direct from WBEZ.

At the same time, we shouldn’t celebrate transit for transit’s sake. Great, you’ve got a bus that goes through your neighborhood--where does it take you? How long does it take to get there? In particular, can it get you to your job … or the job that you want to have? That’s hardly the only reason people use transit, but it’s arguably the most important for the economic health of metro areas.

And this is where the letdown occurs. We found that even if you give the typical metropolitan commuter a very generous 90 minutes to ride transit in one direction, she could reach less than one-third of the total jobs in her metro area. If you’re a less-skilled service worker--the type of person who might rely on transit--you can reach an even lower share of metropolitan jobs in the industries most likely to employ you. Whoops, dropped call. 

Like everything else in metro America, of course, there’s a lot of variation. If you’re in Chattanooga, for example, there a less than one-in-four chance that there’s any transit near you. If you’re in Honolulu, though, there’s probably a bus outside your front door. Right now.

What that variation in metro experienceand the overall resultsindicate is that this is about more than transit. You can have lots of transit, and still fail to reach a lot of regional jobs within a reasonable amount of time (Chicago, we’re looking in your direction). Conversely, you can have modest, unsexy transit and deliver workers from their homes to a majority of regional job centers efficiently (hello, Tucson). 

Transit simply must be part of a successful 21st century metropolitan economy, given rising energy prices, population growth, and the imperative to engage more people in the labor market whether or not they own a car. We simply can’t allow draconian state and local budget cuts to permanently rip the wires out of these systems. But transit can and should do much more to promote access to jobs. In part, that means coordinating much more closely between transportation, housing, and economic development planning. We’ll be talking more about how to do that at today’s event with representatives from metro areas across the country, as well as Transportation Secretary LaHood and HUD Secretary Donovan.

Bottom line--transit can’t be all flashy apps and high design (Take light rail to the ballpark! Live in a condo above a streetcar!). In an era of constrained fiscal and natural resources, we need to focus on how transit can best contribute to economic growth. Simply, it’s about jobs. Or as my big thumbs might type on that little screen, “oy’d snpiy kpnd.” Still working on it.

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