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Report: Better Data Can Drive Equity in Suburban Transit

New analysis by the Urban Institute explores the transit challenges for working poor living in suburbs in four U.S. metros. The data study forms the basis for new conversations around transportation equity.

Seattle's Westlake Station
Shutterstock/steve estvanik
As low-wage workers are pushed to live in suburbs, those same workers are traveling farther to jobs, sometimes without transit systems to serve them adequately.

These issues are at the heart of a new study by the Urban Institute called Access to Opportunity Through Equitable Transportation. The analysis takes a close look at the concept of equity in transportation systems in four metro regions: Seattle, Baltimore, Lansing, Mich., and Nashville, Tenn.

In each region, researchers explored the “spatial mismatch” — the distance between where low-wage workers live compared to where job opportunities exist — and found a yawning gap for those living in suburbs.

“It’s actually higher in the suburbs of all four regions than in the urban core,” said Christina Stacy, lead author of the report. “We expected that to be the case in higher-cost cities where lower-wage workers are often pushed more into the suburbs. It was interesting to see that that was true in all four cities, for different reasons.”

The growth of poverty in U.S. suburbs accounted for nearly half of the growth of poor populations between 2000 and 2015, according to the report, increasing commute times for lower-income residents and placing new demands on public transit systems. Those transit systems, meanwhile, struggle to provide service under increasing funding pressures.

These challenges have opened up new conversations around transportation equity, and the need for more data to more specifically address community transportation demands.

The transit analysis firm Remix has reviewed more than 10 transit agencies in North America to find “that we were not alone in this pursuit,” said Rachel Zack, policy director at Remix, which is exploring the role of software in expanding access to transportation, not just in the delivery of transit, but also the allocation of funding and resources.

“Over half had implemented new equity tools,” Zack added, during a webinar hosted by Meeting of the Minds earlier this week to discuss equity in transportation.

“Equity is not often at the center of transportation decision-making,” remarked Stacy. “Often due to … fiscal constraints, or other reasons. But one reason we often heard is they lacked really rigorous data to support any equity-based decisions."

Zack advises that agencies make better use of the data, adding that it often needs to be manipulated and cleaned in the process.

If improving the transportation options for suburban dwellers hits directly at improving equity in transportation, that process starts by improved coordination and collaboration among transit, community groups, economic development agencies and housing policymakers, said Stacy.

“Because this is not just a transportation issue. This is a housing and land-use issue. In a lot of ways, when the spatial mismatch does spread so far into the suburbs, it might not be solvable through transportation alone,” she added.

The hope is that more data leads to more discussion around equity, and a better understanding of the communities needing to be served, researchers say.

“I hope that these data are combined with more discussion, more community engagement around this,” said Stacy. “Because it’s not always as simple as going in and putting in a new bus stop or train stop. Sometimes those kind of things can actually cause harm for pre-exiting residents of the neighborhood, if they’re not done in a smart and thoughtful way, and paired with investment in affordable housing and other things that can help people remain in place."

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.