Transit Stagnates Along with the Economy

By Michelle Chen Aug 19, 2009

As the recession leaves millions of households barely getting by, crumbling local transit systems have made it a challenge just to get out the door. Though the demand for public transit has soared amid the economic crisis, according to a report by the Transportation Equity Network and Transportation for America, "state, regional and local funding for more than 80 percent of U.S. transit systems has remained flat or has fallen lately, and nearly 90 percent of those systems have had to raise fares or cut service.” Boston and San Francisco residents, for example, may soon be paying about a third more per ride, which could cost a family hundreds of dollars more each year to get to work and school. Heightening other socioeconomic barriers, the gutting of public transit especially impedes urban communities of color. About 60 percent of transit riders are people of color, many of them lacking access to a car. Likewise, immigrants who lack drivers licenses depend heavily on buses and subways. According to the report, “African-Americans are almost six times as likely as whites to take their trips by transit (5.3 percent vs. 0.9 percent) and Hispanics about three times more than whites (2.4 percent vs. 0.9 percent).” In addition to serving practical commuting needs, public transportation is a basic component of equitable and sustainable urban design. Not only do many poor Black and Latino neighborhoods lack the infrastructure that allows them secure good jobs and attract economic development; they also suffer a tax on their health. A study by PolicyLink outlines how transportation equity factors into community health and economic mobility in working-class neighborhoods:

many low-income neighborhoods have little or no efficient, reliable public transportation to get them to jobs and essential goods and services. But these communities are often situated near bus depots, highways, and truck routes, where pollution levels are high—and not coincidentally, asthma rates are high as well. In addition, many of these same communities live without safe, complete sidewalks or bike paths, making walking and biking difficult and often dangerous. As a result, these neighborhoods have low levels of physical activity and high rates of chronic diseases.

The erosion of urban transit also contributes to the threat of climate change, which disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color, who are least able to deal with the health and economic challenges of a warming planet. On the flipside, investing in transportation infrastructure could be a major economic boost for distressed communities. In Kansas City, Missouri, local authorities want to use Recovery Act money to build a “Green Impact Zone," focused on a 150-block high-unemployment area. Melding together infrastructure, workforce and environmental goals, the project would seed a biodiesel-based green bus system, to be built by local community members, in addition to restoring parks and making buildings more energy efficient. A planned community-based job training program would target former parolees and other low-income residents. On a national level, Congress will have a chance to revamp federal funding for transportation infrastructure when it takes on upcoming transit legislation. But Kansas City’s green inspiration remains an anomaly. In other cities, the recession is accelerating the social disinvestment that helped drive them into the crisis. And the communities of color who depend on public transit, as usual, are going nowhere fast. Image: 7 train (Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia)