Transit & job sprawl: the Brookings “Missed Opportunity” report

I haven’t had time to read much of it yet, but I am mightily intrigued by the Brookings Institution’s new report, Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America.

Findings of note from the first few pages:

  • Midwestern cities in general, save for Chicago, do pretty abysmally in terms of the share of population with access to transit.  A pleasant surprise:  metro Detroit appears to beat Indianapolis, Columbus and Madison on this measure (see map, page 7).
  • Also surprisingly, LA and San Jose do better than San Francisco & NYC with respect to the share of residents with transit access.
  • Metro Detroit actually does pretty well wrt typical transit frequency (page 11).

Some other Detroit-specific findings:

  • Metro Detroit’s job sprawl can only be described as horrific — it is below the average for the 100 largest metros by every measure.
  • The interactive map is particularly helpful.  It confirms transit coverage & access is best in Detroit and in the inner suburbs, especially the Woodward & Gratiot corridors.
  • Travel time is best in the centrally located near-west/northwest sides of Detroit.  Job access is atrocious except for Ferndale and certain chunks of Detroit (Palmer Woods, Palmer Park, & the area just across 8 Mile from Southfield).

Bloggers at the New Republic have posted several insightful analyses on this particular report.  Adie Tomer asks, “Do metro areas with well-established transit systems provide the best access to jobs?”

 (W)e were surprised to find uneven results in these places. Well-known rail systems in Chicago and Philadelphia trailed overall access levels in Los Angeles, the archetypal auto-oriented metropolis. Boston’s classic T system doesn’t match the access in mostly bus-reliant Seattle. What’s going on here?

One explanation is that many of the largest metros face serious job sprawl.

As Tomer notes in another TNR post, Brookings’ mapping tool is ground-breaking, and potentially useful for everyone from employers deciding where to locate an office, to social workers, to prospective realtors and prospective homeowners:

For the first time, people across the country have the opportunity to compare how transit serves their neighborhood versus others in and outside of their metro.  We have no doubt it will be useful in all sort of decision-making within the public and private sectors.  And that utility extends to households, too.  As Morgan Clendaniel from Fast Company noted, it’s a great tool for workers moving to a new residence.

In a third TNR post, Alan Berube observes that the data helps illustrate why “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…

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… 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…

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.

Berube’s warning is especially timely here in Detroit, in light of the Detroit Dept. of Transportation’s (DDOT) recently proposed service cuts.   As much as I love the idea of expanded rail service in Detroit, it is perplexing for the city to commit to operational costs for the new Woodward light rail system at the same time it is slashing its bus services (and for that matter, its entire budget, as Mayor Bing and City Council are advancing the most radical fiscal overhaul the city has ever seen.)  There’s plenty to debate about the Woodward rail project, but I’ll save that for another post.

Another recent report I’ve been meaning to get around to, but have not yet, is Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) and Employment from the Center for Transit-Oriented Development. (HT Streetsblog)  Given this wealth of analysis for me to sift through, stay tuned for more posts on the Woodward rail, job sprawl, and other transit-related topics.

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2 responses to “Transit & job sprawl: the Brookings “Missed Opportunity” report

  1. While this report is significant, it’s unfortunate that we’re still at a point where we talk about access measures in terms of, as the quoted blogger says, “Simply, it’s about jobs.”

    Oh? What about getting to school, whether it’s your 15-year-old’s high school or your retraining / continuing ed program? What about your kids’ day care? What about your doctor’s appointment? What about church? What about the grocery store, or the pharmacy? What about visiting your elderly parents? What about … ?

    It’s clearly *not* all about jobs – it’s about enabling people to participate in life, in all its facets. Jobs are important, yes, but we can’t just ignore all those other activities and forms of access.

  2. Murph, you forgot my favorite non-job example of transit needs, getting home after a night of drinking, as I noted in my latest post at TheDetroiter.

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