Transit: The 4 Percent Solution for Job Access

COST Commentary: The title of this COST posting is slightly modified from that of the paper below, by Wendell Cox. Wendell critiques a recent Brookings Institution report which has produced good information but leaves a lot to be desired in some of their assumptions and interpretations of the their own data.

For example: Brookings estimates the “share of working age residents near a transit stop” by assuming 3/4 of a mile from the station is “near.” This is contrary to studies which indicate few people will walk more than 1/4 mile to a transit stop. Indicating the hot Texas weather may reduce this distance even more, Austin’s Cap Metro did a survey a few years ago and found at least 82% of the riders walked less than three blocks and at least 95% walked less than 5 blocks (5% did not answer). This is much less than the Brookings assumption of 3/4 mile. With this Brookings assumption, Austin was 32% below the national average percentage of ‘working-age residents near transit stops’ of major US Metropolitan Areas. This indicates a major shortcoming in Cap Metro planning and operations for effective transit routes. Brookings also indicated Austin had a “median wait for any rush hour transit vehicle” of 8.6 minutes. While this is better than the national average, it appears to be very wrong: just ask riders. This Brookings’ study provided a start to measure the effectiveness of transit to meet its number one priority of work connectivity/access, but, it needs tuning in several areas. Work connectivity/access is vital because it directly relates to people finding better jobs and increasing quality of life.

The Brookings report clearly provides additional foundation for one to further question the wisdom of the Austin area’s plan to spend a hugely disproportionate share of transportation funds on public transit which is very inefficient in providing access to the job market. The work commute is, by far, the number one priority of transit and the greatest use of public transit. Public transit provides less than 1% of the passenger miles traveled in the Austin area, but, the region’s transportation plan, including the City’s Urban Rail (if approved), will spend more than 50% of the transportation dollars over the next 25 years while providing ineffective access of citizens to job locations while actual work commute ridership is only about 3% for the region.

The reading of this article by Wendell Cox and most of the information in the links within this article will provide a wealth of information regarding this overall subject. Within these numerous information sources, there are many indications as to the weaknesses in Austin’s current general and transportation planning which will lead to similar failures as those already experienced in several urban areas.


by Wendell Cox, 05/26/2011, in newgeography

A new Brookings Institution report provides an unprecedented glimpse into the lack of potential for transit to make a more meaningful contribution to mobility in the nation’s metropolitan areas. The report, entitled Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America, provides estimates of the percentage of jobs that can be accessed by transit in 45, 60 or 90 minutes, one-way, by residents of the 100 largest US metropolitan areas. The report is unusual in not evaluating the performance of metropolitan transit systems, but rather, as co-author Alan Berube put it, “what they are capable of.” Moreover, the Brookings access indicators go well beyond analyses that presume having a bus or rail stop nearby is enough, missing the point the availability of transit does not mean that it can take you where you need to go in a reasonable period of time.

Transit: Generally Not Accessible: It may come as a surprise that, according to Brookings, only seven percent of jobs in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas can be reached by residents in 45 minutes during the morning peak period (when transit service is the most intense). Among the 29 metropolitan areas with more than 2,000,000 population, the 45 minute job access average was 5.6 percent, ranging from 12.6 percent in Boston to 1.3 percent in Riverside-San Bernardino. The New York’s metropolitan area’s 45 minute job access figure was 9.8 percent (Figure 1).

Brookings did not examine a 30 minute transit work trip time. However, a bit of triangulation (Note 1) suggests that the 30 minute access figure would be in the range of 3 to 4 percent, at most about 4,000,000 jobs out of the more than 100 million in these metropolitan areas. At least 96 percent of jobs in the largest metropolitan areas would be inaccessible by transit in 30 minutes for the average resident (Figure 2).

The Brookings report also indicates that indicates that 13 percent of employment is accessible within 60 minutes by transit and 30 percent within 90 minutes (Note 2). Brookings focuses principally on the 90 minutes job accessibility data. However, the reality is that few people desire a 45 minute commute, much less one of 90 minutes.

In 2009, in fact, the median one way work trip travel time in the United States was 21 minutes (Note 3). Approximately 68 percent of non-transit commuters (principally driving alone, but also car pools, working at home, walking, bicycles, taxicabs and other modes) were able to reach work in less than 30 minutes. The overwhelming majority, 87 percent, were able to reach work in 45 minutes or less, many times transit’s seven percent. Transit’s overall median work trip travel time was more than double that of driving alone (Figure 3).

A mode of transport incapable of accessing 96 percent of jobs within a normal commute period simply does not meet the needs of most people. This makes somewhat dubious claims that transit can materially reduce congestion or congestion costs throughout metropolitan areas. The Brookings estimates simply confirm the reality that has been evident in US Census Bureau and US Department of Transportation surveys for decades: that transit is generally not time-competitive with the automobile. It is no wonder that the vast majority of commuters in the United States (and even in Europe) travel to work by car.

Much of the reason for transit’s diminished effectiveness lies in the fact that downtowns — the usual destination for transit — represent a small share of overall employment. Downtown areas have only 10 percent of urban area employment, yet account for nearly 50 percent of transit commuting in the nation’s largest urban areas (Figure 4).

Meanwhile, core areas, including downtown areas, represent a decreasing share of the employment market as employment dispersion has continued. Since 2001, metropolitan areas as different as Philadelphia, Portland, Dallas-Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, Denver and St. Louis, saw suburban areas gain employment share. Even in the city of New York, outer borough residents are commuting more to places other than the Manhattan central business district (link to chart).

Transit: The Long Road Home: Transit problem stems largely from its relative inconvenience. In 2009, 35 percent of transit commuters had work trips of more than 60 minutes. Only six percent of drivers had one way commutes of more than 60 minutes. For all of the media obsession about long commutes, more than twice as many drivers got to work in less than 10 minutes than the number who took more than an hour. In the case of transit, more than 25 times as many commuters took more than 60 minutes to get to work as those who took less than 10 minutes.

Economists Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson have shown that the continuing dispersion of jobs (along with residences) has kept traffic congestion under control in the United States. Available data indicates that work trips in the United States generally take less time than in similar sized urban areas in Europe, Japan, Canada and Australia.

Transit Access is Better for Low Income Citizens: The Brookings report also indicated that job accessibility was better for low income citizens than for the populace in general. Approximately 36 percent of jobs were accessible to low-income residents in 90 minutes, compared to the overall average of 30 minutes. This, of course, is because low income citizens are more concentrated in the central areas of metropolitan areas where transit service is better. But even this may be changing. For example, Portland’s aggressive gentrification and transit-oriented development programs are leading to lower income citizens, especially African-Americans, being forced out of better served areas in the core to more dispersed areas where there is less transit. Nikole Hannah Jones of The Oregonian noted:

“And those who left didn’t move to nicer areas. Pushed out by gentrification, most settled on the city’s eastern edges, according to the census data, where the sidewalks, grocery stores and parks grow sparse, and access to public transit is limited.”

Realistic Expectations: More money cannot significantly increase transit access to jobs. Since 1980, transit spending (inflation adjusted) has risen five times as fast as transit ridership. A modest goal of doubling 30 minute job access to between 6 and 8 percent would require much more than double the $50 billion being spent on transit today.

Moreover, there is no point to pretending that traffic will get so bad that people will abandon their cars for transit (they haven’t anywhere) or that high gas prices will force people to switch to transit. No one switches to transit for trips to places transit doesn’t go or where it takes too long.

Nonetheless, transit performs an important niche role for commuters to some of the nation’s largest downtown areas, such in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Approximately half or more of commuters to these downtowns travel there by transit and they account for nearly 40 percent of all transit commuters in the 50 largest urban areas.

Yet for 90 percent of employment outside downtown areas, transit is generally not the answer, and it cannot be made to be for any conceivable amount of money. If it were otherwise, comprehensive visions would already have been advanced to make transit competitive with cars across most of, not just a small part of metropolitan areas.

All of this is particularly important in light of the connection between economic growth and minimizing the time required to travel to jobs throughout the metropolitan area.

The new transit job access is important information for a Congress, elected officials, and a political system seeking ways out of an unprecedented fiscal crisis.

A four percent solution may solve 4 percent of the problem, but is incapable of solving the much larger 96 percent.

1. For example at difference between transit commuters reaching work in less than 30 minutes and 45 minutes, Brookings employment access estimate of 7 percent at 45 minutes would become 3 percent at 30 minutes.

2. The Brookings travel time assumptions appear to be generally consistent with data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) and the US Department of Transportation’s National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS). Brookings, ACS includes the time spent walking to transit in work trip travel times (For example, the ACS questionnaire asks respondents how long it takes to get from home to work and thus includes the time necessary to walk to transit).

3. Median travel times are estimated from American Community Survey data for 2009 and includes working at home. The “median” is the point at which one half of commuters take more time and one-half of commuters take less time to reach work and is different from the more frequently cited “average” travel time, which was 25.5 minutes in 2008.

4. Is Transit Better in Smaller Metropolitan Areas? It is generally assumed that transit service is better in larger metropolitan areas than in smaller metropolitan areas. Yet, the Brookings data seems to indicate the opposite. Larger metropolitan areas tended to have less job access by transit than smaller metropolitan areas. In the largest 20 percent (quintile) of metropolitan areas, only 5.5 percent of employment was accessible within 45 minutes. This was the smallest quintile accessibility score, and well below the middle quintile at 9.2 percent and the bottom quintile at 8.3 percent. The top quintile included metropolitan areas with 2.6 million or more people, the middle quintile included metropolitan areas with 825,000 to 1,275,000 population and the bottom quintile included metropolitan areas between 500,000 and 640,000 (Figure 1). This stronger showing by smaller metropolitan areas probably occurs because it is far less expensive for transit to serve a smaller area. Further, smaller metropolitan areas can have more concentration in core employment. Even so, smaller metropolitan areas tend to have considerably smaller transit market shares than larger metropolitan areas.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life”

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