- Study: Metropolitan mass transit systems often don’t reach areas where workers find jobs
- Improving access to jobs has a direct economic impact on families and regions
- Equitable investments — including in mass transit — are key to the sustainability of metro areas
Since 2007, the Mott Foundation has been funding efforts by the Metropolitan Policy Program — an initiative of the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution — to explore ways that government, education and business communities in the Great Lakes states can work together to develop a winning economic vision for the region.
Those activities continued today as Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the program, and leaders from throughout Michigan met in Mott’s hometown of Flint to discuss the economic implications, including for low-income families, of the state’s metropolitan mass transportation systems. The meeting was sponsored by the Foundation and included findings from Brookings’s 2011 report, “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America
,” which documented inequities in 100 mass transit systems across the country.
Mott Communications Officer Duane Elling spoke with Puentes about the report and the relationships between mass transit systems and jobs, neighborhoods and the economic strength of metropolitan communities.
What have been some “ah-ha” moments for audiences since the publication of “Missed Opportunity”?
Perhaps the biggest is the moment of clarity when they understand the difference between mobility and accessibility.
Over the last few decades, mass transit in the U.S. has largely focused on reducing the number of cars on the streets in large metropolitan areas, with the goals of minimizing traffic congestion and moving people faster and more efficiently from point A to point B. For obvious reasons, this emphasis on mobility seems to make a lot of sense.
The problem is that today’s transit systems often don’t stop in — or sometimes even travel to — the areas where their riders are most likely to find employment. This is especially problematic for low-income workers, for whom mass transit is often the only available form of mobile transport.
The result is that, even allowing for 90 minutes of travel time, today’s typical mass transit commuter can access only about 30 percent of all jobs in the surrounding metro area. For workers in low- and middle-skill industries, that number falls to about one-quarter of all jobs.
We now know that the high level of mobility made possible by mass transit systems is frequently offset by the lack of access to available job and career opportunities, which has a direct impact on workers, their families and neighborhoods, and the community’s overall economic strength.
How is this shaping public conversations about transit?
Click to play "This is a Transit Moment" video.
Puentes: I think we’re going through a transportation renaissance. We’re getting past the debates about cars versus mass transit, and as I described above, folks are starting to realize that transportation isn’t just about the means by which people travel back and forth. It’s about helping people to access job opportunities and open doors to economic stability.
I think these conversations are helping metro areas put transit in its proper perspective, to better understand its connections to employment and sustainability, both of which Mott has certainly been plugged into for a number of years. It’s helping communities to understand the direct relation that those factors have in the area’s overall economic strength and stability.
How are those insights helping to inform or shape debates about the overall economic future of metropolitan areas?
The big take away is that that transit providers can lay down the train rails and put together the bus routes, but they can only do so much to address the problems of economic access and equity.
Creating real change in those issues requires that metro areas take a close, critical look at how their use and allocation of local resources, including mass transit, is supporting — or hindering — their communities’ ability to engage people in the local economy. They have to look at what improvements to the local infrastructure are needed and available, and how those fit within a picture of future growth and development.
Creating such change also requires that local, state and federal leaders make informed, balanced and equitable decisions when it comes to investments in communities, and that they recognize that the economic seeds they plant today will impact our metro areas for many years to come.