Transit Options Dwindle as 700,000 Americans Live in Households Without Cars OR Transit

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A pair of reports issued this week shows an increasingly grim picture for American mobility: some 700,000 Americans live without cars and without access to transit, even as more than two thirds of U.S. transit agencies have cut service in the past year.

"Seven hundred thousand households is larger than the population of Columbus, Ohio or San Antonio, Texas,” said Adie Tomer, author of the Brookings Institution study: Transit Access and Zero-Vehicle Households. “These people are terribly constrained in earning a living, getting to the store, or taking their kids to daycare. If this many people were facing a public health scare, this country would be in crisis mode.  We need to approach this problem with similar urgency.”

But Tomer's plea comes as the federal government is looking at reducing transportation spending, and as states and cities, faced with budget problems of their own, are slashing contributions to public transit systems.

A quarter of large transit systems have already reduced the geographic reach of their services, and half have cut peak-service, meaning long, often frustrating waits for commuters.  And the American Public Transportation Association Survey found a third of all transit systems say they face even more shortfalls in the near future.

Cutbacks in service are particularly troublesome for APTA: the organization's research suggests that slashed routes, limited service, or long waits can drive riders from transit altogether. By contrast, APTA says riders are more likely to pay the increased fares and stick with transit, though unhappily so.

But as Brookings reported, most -- sixty percent -- of so-called "zero-vehicle" households are low-income, meaning that cuts in transit or fare raises hit poor people the hardest. Another quarter are middle income.

Atlanta (whose residents also face one of the steepest transit fare hikes in the nation) have the highest number of no car/no transit households in the country, followed by Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and St. Louis.

The New York/NJ/PA region houses nearly a third of all households without cars, but its transit system is facing serious strains.  Last year, New York eliminated two subway routes and slashed dozens of bus lines; the cost of a monthly metro card also crossed into the three-figures.  The MTA says more fare hikes are coming in January 2013 and it recently announced a $9 billion shortfall in its capital budget.

In an environment with a severe distaste for new taxes, the MTA says it will fill most of that gap through borrowing.