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A new analysis reportedly found that even the U.S. cities with the most highly functioning transit systems are failing to connect people without cars to job opportunities. And given that low-income or people of color tend to be the ones who rely on public transportation to get around, this ends up disproportionately affecting them.
Analysts at TransitCenter comprehensively measured disparities in public transportation access among demographic groups in six major cities between Feb. 2020 and Feb. 2021. These cities were Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington, which rank in the top 10 largest transit systems in the country by ridership. The cities were analyzed in the group’s new Transit Equity Dashboard.
As a result, TransitCenter found that having public transportation doesn’t mean it’s getting people where they need to go, and that there are actually massive gaps in access between the most- and least-privileged residents. “People of color are more likely to commute by transit than White people are, but far more jobs are accessible by driving than by transit,” the report found.
In Los Angeles, a whopping 17 times as many jobs were reachable by driving than by transit, according to the report. In Chicago, it was seven times. However, in LA, it’s a challenge to get almost anywhere else, not just work. TransitCenter found it took the average public transportation user nearly four times as long to get to a hospital or urgent care center than it took the average driver. In the rest of the cities studied, the trek to the doctor took at least twice as long for non-motorists.
Across the country, Black households are the group least likely to have access to a private motor vehicle. And even a person of color who in fact does have a transit stop right on their block isn’t necessarily always able to comfortably or affordably access opportunity via that route alone, per the report.
The team at TransitCenter also studied a holistic array of variables that might affect a commuter’s ability to get around. Among those variables were the price of a ticket, how often a bus arrives on time, and whether the closest train route connects a resident with the third-closest pharmacy, rather than simply the closest one, which may not offer affordable prices. “Existing evaluations of equity in U.S. transit systems basically ask, ‘Where do people live?’ and ‘Where is transit located?’ — end of story,” Mary Buchanan, who co-authored the report, reportedly said. “They’re not really doing a good job of illustrating how good public transit is at getting people where they need to go, or how that varies across different groups of people.”
Because transit agencies and advocates have historically lacked the resources to do this kind of analysis, much of the structural racism and classism inscribed in the U.S.’ transit networks went unquantified for long, even as advocates decried policies that privileged mobility for some commuters over others, as Streetsblog wrote.
“In many of our cities, we have this two-tiered public transit system where one mode is more expensive — for example, an express bus system, or a commuter train —— whose main purpose is to transport more affluent, largely White commuters to their jobs in the city centers, and then whisk them back to the suburbs at the end of the day,” Buchanan reportedly explained. “Then there’s the local system — usually a bus — which is often less expensive and makes more stops in the city center, but it’s also a lot more costly in terms of time, reliability, and ease of use. That dynamic, where transit service for people with more means is more effective and transit for service for everyone else is less effective, is pretty pervasive — and there’s been a lot of research that over time, it discourages [the latter group] from riding transit at all.”
Buchanan hopes that the six cities in the report will use TransitCenter’s analysis as a jumping off point to measure factors for which her team didn’t have data, like access specifically for people with mobility challenges.