Suburban Poverty and the Transit Connection

Today on the Streetsblog Network, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic looks at the new Brookings Institution
report on suburban poverty levels and the connection to future
transportation planning in those regions. Freemark, who recently wrote
about how the city of Paris is extending its transit infrastructure to
its traditionally lower-income suburbs, points out that the challenges
to transit in American suburbs are greater. The infrastructure of
American suburbs, as well as the governmental planning mechanisms,
present significant challenges to reducing automobile dependence — a
dependence that weighs especially heavily on people with low incomes.
Freemark writes:

212413348_bc6fd150ea.jpgTransit in American suburbs faces challenges. (Photo: richpix via Flickr)

Thus far, few metropolitan areas have responded adequately to the
transportation concerns that will progressively manifest themselves;
while central-city-oriented transit networks are promoted vigorously,
the concerns of suburbs are sidelined (including by this site). This
condition seems unlikely to improve, with few metropolitan areas
actually planning as a region, unlike Paris, where transportation planning and financing is conducted from the regional level.

There are major differences between the U.S. and France: American
suburbs are incredibly sprawled-out, which means that high-quality,
high-capacity transit would be both inefficient and inappropriate in
most places. Indeed, U.S. poverty can increasingly be defined as a car-dependent one
— which means that expecting to address transportation needs of the
least well-off in the suburbs through better public transportation will
be a failure in the short-term. This also means, unfortunately, that
policies that increase costs of driving will fall directly on a large
number of the working poor.

The development of a more equitable and sustainable transportation
system demands an intense effort to densify and pedestrianize the same
suburbs that are rapidly becoming economically diverse. We cannot
continue allowing — and often subsidizing — people to live in isolated
cul-de-sac neighborhoods completely inaccessible to anything by
anything but a private automobiles. We must construct new town centers
in suburban communities with essential services and mixed-income
housing accessible via transit to urban cores. The current trends,
enforced by local, state, and national planning decisions, are
producing a lower class that spends far too much on private

It’s a reckless course barreling straight towards increasing inequality.

More from around the network: takes a jab at creative-class promoter Richard Florida and his prescriptions for struggling cities. Cyclelicious tips a hat to the legacy of Donald Appleyard‘s classic book, "Livable Streets." And the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation reports on a study showing that helmet laws discourage cycling.

  • DJB

    “[P]olicies that increase costs of driving will fall directly on a large number of the working poor.”

    To some extent this is true. However, aren’t poor people who own cars likely to own really efficient cars, since they have the lowest cost to operate?

    Jacking up the price of gasoline forces auto makers to focus on more efficient designs and pushes people into transit and biking, helping to make those modes more viable. It also incentivizes land use patterns that are less dependent on cars in the first place.

    The costs of climate change fall disproportionately on the poor as well, particularly poor people in countries much worse off than the U.S. such as Bangladesh. We have to make gasoline more expensive (slowly but surely), and we have to reconfigure our neighborhoods and streets to make other modes more viable.

  • I think it’s very important that we realize that poor people are people and not pieces on a chessboard of what we want to do. If it were up to me I’d make every parking lots a park, ban cars from downtown LA, put in dedicated separated by a physical barrier but on a major street bike lanes and dedicated bus lanes on every major street in LA. I would put toll boxes on all the freeways, but I realize something I can afford to move where transit is good. I can decide where and when I’m going to work. And doing all the things I want without taking into consideration people who don’t have the resources is wrong and pointless, because it’s going to only benefit a few people and you can’t change anything by individual efforts. You can make it trendy, but you can’t do anything lasting without thinking about the big picture.

    I think priority is making housing affordable near good transit. I think one of the big problems in alt transit is that it’s alligned way too closely to real estate and land development.

    Alt transit should be about the streets and the people, but to me I feel that people who work to developers are way too cozy with alt transit. Not saying they shouldn’t be dealt with, but those land developer types make sure they are right in there funding and running issues in regards to all issues of transit and that is problematic that is why the housing issue is just some side note and this over emphasis on cars. The real estate and those who work for real estate do a great job at distracting and steering the conversation into what they want to talk about.


  • And why is the real estate thing a problem, because anyone that has anything to do with land development wants to make money and whatever suggestion they propose in the end has to do with them making money.

    Think Paris and I’m thinking alot of land developer types have that idea in mind. We can’t let this become about class and exclusion. We stop that by alligning first with people issues not land development issues.


  • DJB

    Affordable housing. Something I should know more about. I know what Jane Jacobs says on the subject: a neighborhood should have a mix of new and old buildings because newer buildings tend to be more expensive. That’s true in K-town. I live in a cheap old building, and the new Wilshire/Vermont station TOD is really expensive to live in ($1,400 for a studio!)

    Ultimately, I think we also need more non-profit developers who make housing available to lower income people.

    It’s also important to remember the basics of supply and demand. If the population keeps growing and new housing construction (including apartments) doesn’t keep up, prices go up. Since I think sprawl is an environmentally irresponsible way to deal with this need, I advocate for density, generally in the 2-5 story range.

  • What you folks miss, though, is that often times poor people move out to the boonies BECAUSE housing prices are cheap. After all, Palmdale and Lancaster have had several times the percentage of Section 8 participants renting homes than in the LA basin, because the rents are so much cheaper there. Public transportation in the Antelope Valley is anemic, with at best half hourly bus service, and jobs are not prevlaent. But the voucher holders have made a business decision that they would rather have more space out in the boonies than less space in an area closer to employment (where they might have a better chance of leaving Section 8).

    Most of South LA does have good transit service, at least on paper. Numerous Rapid Buses, the Blue, Green, and Silver Lines, and local bus service that runs all night. Whether or not they show up is another story, but on the schedule, almost all of the area from Inglewood to South Gate in blanketed by frequent peak hour service and passable weekend and midday service. San Bernardino County, in the older suburban (pre-1980’s) neighborhoods of Fontana, Rialto, Ontario, San Bernardino, and Montclair, also has good transit service, but the problem is that those lines don’t connect well to the new job centers near the 15 freeway. This is because of the spatial mismatch between public transit and low-density warehousing and manufacturing facilities, the other half of the suburban sprawl that Yonah fails to mention. Low income workers are less likely to be working in a multi-story office building than they are driving a fork lift or ringing up a cash register at a big box store in a strip mall.

  • DJB

    I don’t think I missed that some people move to the outer burbs for cheap housing. The land is cheaper out there, so you can pay low rent or be a homeowner without a ton of cash, as long as you’re willing to endure a hellish car commute and live in a boring neighborhood.

    Sprawl is a way to provide affordable housing, I just think it’s a completely irresponsible way to do so, mainly for environmental reasons. I know people say “I should have that choice”. But I think the negative effects those choices impose on society are significant enough to justify a significant effort to reign it in (easier said than done though).



Looking Ahead to the Year in Transit Expansion

After significant transit construction in the United States in 2014, the next year will see another impressive round of groundbreakings and new openings. That’s according to Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic, who has catalogued major transit expansion projects throughout the U.S. and Canada for the last six years. In 2015, we’ll see major light rail projects begin […]