Auto Access to Jobs is Vital for Better Quality of Life

COST Commentary: It was established long ago that better mobility is directly related to greater quality of life. Introduction of the private auto resulted in major improvements in mobility, providing people freedom and expanded choices which had never been experienced.

With growing economies and expanding urban areas, the auto was vital in providing workers access to wider job choices and opportunities resulting in better jobs and higher income. Average gains in worker income greatly exceeded the costs of auto ownership.

Today, the auto is ubiquitous in society, providing the vast majority of all trips. For those working outside home, the work commute in the U.S. is just over 86% by private vehicle and 95% by road. Counting walking commuters along the roads adds, approximately, another 2% for 97%.

More than 50% of Transit ridership is for the work trip. Over time, auto work commuting trips have declined to less than 20% of all auto trips. This is one reason ‘daily vehicle miles traveled (DVMT) per capita’ has been on a decreasing trend in Central Texas for many years. As people moved outward from the major central city of Austin, they were followed by retail, medical, education, restaurant, entertainment and other supporting facilities and services. This has reduced ‘DVMT per capita’ for the 80% of auto trips which are not for work commuting. Even though a portion of the 20% work commuting miles traveled have increased, the total ‘DVMT per capita’ has decreasd. Overall ‘DVMT per capita’ for local citizens has decreased more than the numbers indicate because pass-through trucks and other pass-through vehicles’ miles have grown rapidly and are part of the DVMT used to calculate the ‘per capita’ miles traveled.

Additional good news regarding auto trips relates to the fact that the greatest improvement in air quality for Central Texas has been more than 40 years of continuing significant reductions in automobile emissions. During this time the population has increased more than 4.5 times and driving has increased much more while total vehicle emissions have declined dramatically. Austin has never exceeded Federal air quality standards. It is the ‘cleanest air’ major city in Texas and one of the cleanest air major cities in the nation.

The studies discussed below indicate auto travel can reach all jobs in 31 of 51 metro areas in 30 minutes or less. At 60 minutes travel time, almost everyone can reach nearly every job in all 51 metro areas. This contrasts with transit which can reach only 7% of a regions jobs in 45 minutes in the 100 largest metro areas and 13% of the area’s jobs in 60 minutes. Even in 90 minutes average travel time, transit can reach only 30% of the jobs.

This transit performance demonstrates again that the traditional radial (hub and spoke) bus route structure, designed to carry people from outside to the central city area are outmoded by today’s demographics and job dispersion patterns. As Robert Poole, Jr. states below, more flexible transit systems are needed to link more people cost-effectively to jobs. He notes “That argues for grid-based bus systems as opposed to radial bus and rail systems focused on what used to be the “central business district.”

One promising approach to a grid-based bus system is Cellular Mass Transit which is a flexible, cost-effective, demand based concept invented by an Austin citizen but ignored by Capital Metro and the City.

New Study Ranks Access to Jobs via Auto Commuting

by Rowert W. Poole, Jr.. Reason Foundation, Surface Transportation Innovations, Issue Nol. 115 – May 2013

Transportation is not an end in itself; it’s a means to other ends, such as getting to and from work. Taking this point to heart, a growing number of researchers in recent years have promoted the concept of “access” as being more important than speed or travel time, per se. One of the leaders in this field, David Levinson of the University of Minnesota, defines accessibility as “the number of destinations reachable within a given travel time” by a particular mode of transportation. He is the author of a new study called “Access Across America,” released last month by U of M’s Center for Transportation Studies.

In this study, Levinson estimated the accessibility to jobs by car for the 51 largest U.S. metro areas. His data are for 1990, 2000, and 2010, so in addition to providing a snapshot of conditions as of 2010, the data also allow him to document trends over the past two decades. The results may surprise many of those concerned about traffic congestion in the largest metro areas, because Levinson finds that the 10 metro areas that provide the greatest accessibility to jobs via auto commuting are, in order: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Jose, Washington, Dallas, Boston, and Houston. And over the past two decades, the places with the largest increases in accessibility by car are Las Vegas, Jacksonville, Austin, Orlando, and Phoenix. Those with the largest decreases are Cleveland, Detroit, Honolulu, and Los Angeles.

What accounts for these findings? Although Levinson doesn’t really get into the details, I think one of the most important factors is the ongoing suburbanization of jobs. Remember, Levinson’s data are for entire metro areas, and there has been a huge dispersion of jobs throughout these metros over the past 50 years. A good summary of the data was provided last month by Wendell Cox in “Job Dispersion in Major US Metropolitan Areas, 1960-2010.” For example, in 1960 54% of employment in 35 major metro areas was in the historical core municipalities—but by 2010, that figure had dropped to 30%, with 70% in suburban and exurban areas. The suburbanization of jobs has made huge numbers of workplaces more accessible by car than before, leading to shorter average work-trip travel times than in Canada or Europe.

Levinson’s data show that in 31of the 51 metro areas, all the jobs can be reached by car in 30 minutes or less; upping the limit to 40 minutes brings the total to 39 of the 51, and at 60 minutes, almost everyone can reach nearly every job in every one of the 51 metro areas. That’s pretty outstanding performance by the highway system, despite the existence of serious congestion.

It’s instructive to contrast Levinson’s auto accessibility figures with the findings of a Brookings Institution study from 2011 on accessibility to jobs via transit (“Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America”). Using a 45-minute transit commute time, that study found that only 7% of jobs could be reached, in the 100 largest metro areas. Even at 60 minutes, transit could get people to only 13% of the area’s jobs. To reach 30% of the jobs, you need an average travel time of 90 minutes, which is more than three times the duration of the average U.S. auto commute.

Knowing this, some advocates of Smart Growth therefore disparage the suburbanization of employment as “jobs sprawl” and seek to promote public policies that would reverse it, so that transit could do a better job. But that confuses means with ends. If the purpose of an urban transportation system is accessibility, we should work to make the system serve that goal, not engage in a utopian quest to massively reshape the urban landscape. And, as I have written in previous issues of this newsletter, the implication for transit is to develop more flexible systems that can link more people cost-effectively to jobs. That argues for grid-based bus systems as opposed to radial bus and rail systems focused on what used to be the “central business district.”

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