Is public transit the answer to poverty?

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Lines of public transportation in U.S. cities are continually expanding to richer neighborhoods over poorer ones. Certain advocates see public transit as a way to narrow the wealth gap and reduce unemployment.

“We’re seeing that where cities have invested in transit, their unemployment rates have dropped, and employment is going up because people can get there,” said Michael Melaniphy, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

But not all people can get there.

Lower-income people, who often live in public housing, spend a disproportionately larger percentage of their incomes on their commutes on public transit.

Cash and location 

A 2006 study from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found  location to be more important than income level when it came to how often public transportation was utilized.

“Transportation methods had less to do with household income and more to do with the neighborhoods in which those households were,” according to Aarian Marshall, reporter for The Atlantic’s urban development affiliate CityLab.

The study looked at 18,300 HUD properties in 15 urban areas nationwide and found that housing expenses for people living in public housing made up 45 percent of annual income per household. Forty-eight percent of people living in public housing spent over 15 percent of their incomes on transit.

Those who reside in lower-income neighborhoods in Detroit have reported accessibility issues after a 2015 rail extension. A streetcar built in Detroit did little to bring poor people without cars to the city’s business centers, according to community advocates. 

“It is only moving people who are already there,”  according to Rev. Joan C. Ross,  director of the North End Woodward Community Coalition, who lodged a Title VI complaint under the Civil Rights Act.  “In our community, 30 to 40 percent of people don’t have cars.”

Roadblocks from the court

In 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court changed how the anti-discrimination laws of  Title VI could be used.

“The court altered the standard, concluding that an individual had to prove that the policy was intended to cause discrimination, a much higher bar to prove,” Corrine Ramey wrote in Slate in 2015.

It is harder for people who are discriminated against to dispute these issues in court. Instead they were forced to go to local agencies that often had inconsistent ways of enforcing these issues, according to Bob Allen, director of policy for Urban Habitat in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

“Without that right of private action, you have to go to the agencies themselves,” Allen said.

A shift in ideology 

In 1993, the Clinton Administration responded to a paradigm shift in city planning ideology called the New Urbanist movement, which found its footing in the latter half of the Reagan years.

“New Urbanism is essentially a reaction to urban sprawl,” according to Robert Coy, business analyst for The American Red Cross in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s cheaper to implement public transit in a city that’s close together — you’re buying less trek.”

What about population density?

How functional a public transit system often has a lot to do with the way a city is set up. This depends on where the population centers are in the city and how they relate to the city’s business centers.

“If you have a more dense city core, it’s easier and cheaper to implement public transit,” Coy said.  “People who are poor aren’t going to shell out the money for an automobile just because they don’t have it. They’re going to be wherever the public transit is available.”

The daily commute

In cities like Charlotte, where most commuters have cars, public transit is utilized for convenience among higher-income people and out of necessity for lower-income people, according to Coy.

“With public transportation, you use it if you need it,” Coy said.

Recent research Coy consulted showed that double-income, childless households and millennials with cars are becoming increasingly reliant on public transit for their work commutes. 

“We’re seeing a fundamental shift in how people are moving about their communities,” Melaniphy said.

Public transit use rose 37 percent between 1995 and 2013, outpacing both growth in population and a surge in car use. Nationally, public transportation is being used now at its highest rate since 1956, according to the 2014 APTA study.

“A lot of people would prefer to drive less and rely more on walking, cycling and public transit, provided that those are high-quality options,” said Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia.

More than 70 percent of all attempted public transit tax laws have passed in the last two years, according to Melaniphy, though transit access issues remain in cities like Washington, D.C.

“You do have a lot of issues in D.C. with accessibility with the people who really need it versus the people who are going to fund it often don’t live in the same spaces.” Coy said.

Extending access

Transit accessibility for lower-income individuals is an issue in New York City. The main subway dead-zones are the Bronx, Queens, and certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn. 

A 2006 study published in the Journal of Urban Economics looked at rail extensions in New York and found they were categorically designed to increase access to rich neighborhoods and not to poor ones.

“There are parts of the city, where there is a lot of public housing, where the train system just drops off,” according to Jordan Delzell, 25, who has lived in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn for the last four years.

Subway lines run significantly less frequently in low-income Manhattan neighbors and the outer boroughs of New York City in Delzell’s experience.

“I used to volunteer at a school in the Bronx, in a lower-income area, and the service would run sometimes every 30 minutes, whereas in Manhattan the service is every 5 minutes,” Delzell said. “That would be normal, and that’s the only train going into the city, so tons of people couldn’t get to where they needed to go.”

What Delzell has experienced while commuting from Brooklyn and the Bronx to Manhattan has been corroborated by recent research and city-planning scholarship.

Where to go from here?

Public transportation subsidies nationwide are failing to keep up with increasing fare prices, according to Karel Martens in her 2016 book “Transport Justice”.

“The injustices in the domain of transportation hardly ever attract attention,” Martens said.

Martens outlined a pathway toward more intentionality, equity and inclusivity in public transportation for lower-income urban neighborhoods. This pathway involves more accountability from city governments concerning the impacts of line extensions on the surrounding neighborhoods.

“If interventions only improve the accessibility provided to persons who already have sufficient accessibility (and do not generate other benefits, notably in terms of economic growth, health or road safety),” Martens said. “Then strong reasons for such interventions are lacking.”

San Francisco and London are regarded as model examples of public transit systems that have started to narrow the wealth gap, according to a 2016 study from the Community Service Society of New York.

Rising fares have proven to be an impediment to upward-mobility for the urban poor. The study found that when city governments provide subsidies for lower-income commuters, it increases the likelihood of steadier salaries and housing situations.

The CSSNY is hoping that New York City will implement a more comprehensive subsidy strategy so that fare breaks will go to those who need it most.

“The turnstile should be the gateway, not the barrier, to economic opportunity,” said Nancy Rankin, vice president of the CSSNY.

Public transportation is not going provide a full and complete remedy to urban poverty any time soon, but there is a concerted effort being from both government bodies and advocacy groups.

These efforts will continue to collide and coalesce and likely lead to slight, sporadic and incremental progress. 


Subway dead-zones in New York City 

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Robert Coy talks public transit and housing

Headline image from the Centre Commercial Grand’place in Grenoble, France