A new study from the Brookings Institution reports that relying on metropolitan public transit is often not a viable option for low income workers seeking reasonable access to job opportunities.
The study analyzed access to jobs across the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States, by census block income level. The average commuter using public transit can reach only 30 percent of all jobs within 90 minutes travel time, the definition used for a “reasonable” commute. Low income suburban workers relying on public transit are even further underserved. On average, a low income suburban resident can access only one in five low- and middle-skill industry jobs with reasonable public transit commute. Low income is defined as earning less than 80% of the area’s median income.
Furthermore, 69% of all lowest skilled jobs are located in the suburbs. According to the study, the overwhelming majority of metro transit systems (94 out of 100) provide greater access to jobs in high-skill industries near downtown than suburban jobs in low- to middle-skill industries. The study notes that the number of suburban jobs is on the rise; nearly half of all jobs in the largest metropolitan areas are located more than 10 miles outside of downtowns.
The report’s authors argue that there is a fundamental “spatial mismatch” between low income workers and jobs for which they are currently qualified. The poorest suburban households remain the most isolated, without access to the majority of regional job opportunities. For example, in the Riverside (CA) metro area, 81% of low income residents live in the suburbs, and these residents can reach only 7% of low- and middle-skill industry jobs.
Due to limited resources, transit agencies have been unable to expand service to keep pace with the decentralization of both jobs and households across metropolitan regions. Further budget cuts loom in many metro areas which are likely to directly affect service in low income communities. For example, the authors cite cuts in Milwaukee County that would make an estimated 25,000 jobs inaccessible. These cuts directly threaten low income households dependent on transit.
The Brookings report recommends policies that link transportation, housing and economic development decisions. Citing efforts underway through the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the study recommends incentivizing the placement of both affordable housing and employers along existing transit routes in order to expand access to jobs for low income households. The report recommends incorporating a preference for location efficiency into affordable housing development tools such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit.
The report, Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America, is available alongside interactive maps and profiles of individual metropolitan areas on the Brookings Institution’s webpage at http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2011/0512_jobs_and_transit.aspx