Digging into the Brookings Report: Transit Only Works if It Takes You To Work

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(Andrea Bernstein and Kate Hinds, Transportation Nation) We were swamped last week, and didn't have a chance to dig into the heroic Brookings Institution report "Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metro America."

(The head of Brookings said doing the report meant looking at  "literally billions of daily trips in the United States, 500 gigabytes of data, 100 metropolitan areas, 371 transit agencies, two staff hospitalized").

The top line -- some 70 percent of Americans have access to transit, but only 30 percent can reach their jobs within 90 minutes.   There are several reasons for this, Brookings says, beginning with the fact that  America's transit systems were primarily laid out on the spoke-and-hub model.  Think about New York City.  It's relatively easy to get to your job in Manhattan on the subway  if you live in Park Slope in Brooklyn, Elmhurst, in Queens, or Mott Haven, in the Bronx.  But what if you live in Bushwick and work in Queens, an increasingly common pattern in New York City? (This phenomenon was also documented in a recent Center for an Urban Future report.)

In the Bay Area, you can get to downtown SF more or less easily on BART or the Cal Train, but if you live in Oakland and work in Redwood City across the bay, you're not so lucky -- even where there's express bus it may be so difficult to get from your house to the bus, and then from the bus to your job, that it feels not worth it.

And those are the cities with the good transit systems.  There are other problems, the report says -- more people live and work in the suburbs, which were built only with automobile transport in mind,  and as poverty continues to move out to the suburbs, poor people find themselves increasingly reliant on cars, or on shrinking bus systems.

"You can have lots of transit, and still fail to reach a lot of regional jobs within a reasonable amount of time," writes Alan  Berube, senior fellow and research director of Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. "Conversely, you can have modest, unsexy transit and deliver workers from their homes to a majority of regional job centers efficiently."

The report is a sobering bucket of icy water at a time when the rising price of gas is causing people to look for transit options -- at the same time many localities have cut transit entirely because of budget constraints.  And as Monday's Urban Land Institute report showed, budgetary pressure mean more of these cuts are in store.

It also comes as the federal government is expressing an anti-spending mood.

One note on the Brookings methodology -- the institution famously considers metro areas, as defined by the U.S. Census.  So New York includes a number of suburban counties with little transit (Rockland, Orange, parts of NJ, even eastern Pennsylvania).   Ergo New York ranks 13th in connecting people to jobs via transit -- while Honolulu ranks first

The report calls for making job access a key factor in transportation decision making -- as well as integrating land use, housing, and infrastructure decisions. Coinciding with the release of the report, Brookings brought together some key stakeholders -- including  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan -- to discuss these issues. (See the video, below). And you can download a pdf of the full report here.