People are stranded in 'transit deserts' in dozens of US cities

March 13, 2018 by Junfeng Jiao And Chris Bischak, The Conversation
Where’s my bus? Credit:

Less than two months after President Donald Trump pledged in his State of the Union Address to "rebuild our crumbling infrastructure," prospects look dim. The Trump administration is asking Congress for ideas about how to fund trillions of dollars in improvements that experts say are needed. Some Democrats want to reverse newly enacted tax cuts to fund repairs – an unlikely strategy as long as Republicans control Congress.

Deciding how to fund investments on this scale is primarily a job for elected officials, but research can help set priorities. Our current work focuses on , which is critical to health and economic development, since it connects people with jobs, services and recreational opportunities.

Along with other colleagues at the Urban Information Lab at the University of Texas, we have developed a website showing which areas in major U.S. cities do not have sufficient alternatives to car ownership. Using these methods, we have determined that lack of transit access is a widespread problem. In some of the most severely affected cities, 1 in 8 residents lives in what we refer to as transit deserts.

Deserts and oases

Using GIS-based mapping technology, we recently assessed 52 U.S. cities, from large metropolises like New York City and Los Angeles to smaller cities such as Wichita. We systematically analyzed transportation and demand at the block group level – essentially, by neighborhoods. Then we classified block groups as "transit deserts," with inadequate transportation services compared to demand; "transit oases," with more transportation services than demand; and areas where transit supply meets demand.

To calculate the supply, we mapped out cities' transportation systems using publicly available data sets, including General Transit Feed Specification data. GTFS data sets are published by transit service companies and provide detailed information about their , such as route information, frequency of service and locations of stops.

We calculated demand for transit using American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Transportation demand is difficult to quantify, so we used the number of transit-dependent people in each city as a proxy. A transit-dependent person is someone over the age of 12 who may need access to transportation but cannot or does not drive because he or she is too young, is disabled, is too poor to own a vehicle or chooses not to own a car.

Transportation deserts were present to varying degrees in all 52 cities in our study. In transit desert block groups, on average, about 43 percent of residents were transit dependent. But surprisingly, even in block groups that have enough transit service to meet demand, 38 percent of the population was transit dependent. This tells us that there is broad need for alternatives to individual car ownership.

For example, we found that 22 percent of block groups in San Francisco were transit deserts. This does not mean that transit supply is weak within San Francisco. Rather, transit demand is high because many residents do not own cars or cannot drive, and in some neighborhoods, this demand is not being met.

In contrast, the city of San Jose, California, has a high rate of car ownership and consequently a low rate of transit demand. And the city's transit supply is relatively good, so we only found 2 percent of block groups that were transit deserts.

Who do transit agencies serve?

Traditional transit planning is primarily focused on easing commute times into central business districts, not on providing adequate transportation within residential areas. Our preliminary analysis showed that lack of transit access was correlated with living in denser areas. For example, in New York City there are transit deserts along the the Upper West and Upper East sides, which are high-density residential areas but do not have enough transit options to meet residents' needs.

Our finding that denser areas tend to be underserved suggests that cities will be increasingly challenged to provide transit access in the coming decades. The United Nations estimates that two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities by 2050, which will mean growing demand for transit. Moreover, fewer Americans, particularly millennials, are choosing to own vehicles or even get driver's licenses.

This dual challenge underlines the urgency of investing in transportation infrastructure. The problem of transportation access is only likely to grow more acute in the coming years, and new infrastructure projects take many years to plan, finance and complete.

Transit deserts in Orlando, Florida. Red areas are transit deserts, and green areas are transit oasis areas. In tan areas, transit supply and demand are in balance. Credit: Urban Information Lab, University of Texas – Austin, CC BY-ND

Transit deserts reinforce inequality

We also found that relatively well-off neighborhoods have better services. This is not surprising: Wealthier people tend to have higher access to cars, and thus rely less on .

Lower access to transportation for poorer Americans creates a kind of negative economic feedback loop. People need access to high-quality transportation in order to find and retain better jobs. Indeed, several studies have shown that transit access is one the most critical factors in determining upward mobility. Poor Americans are likely to have lower-than-average access to transit, but often are unable to move out of poverty because of this lack of transit. Investing in infrastructure thus is a way of increasing social and economic equality.

What state and city governments can do

Shrinking transit deserts does not necessarily require wholesale construction of new transit infrastructure. Some solutions can be implemented relatively cheaply and easily.

New and emerging technologies can provide flexible alternatives to traditional public transportation or even enhance regular public transit. Examples include services from transit network companies, such as Uber's Pool and Express Pool and Lyft's Line; traditional or dockless bike sharing services, such as Mobike and Ofo; and microtransit services like Didi Bus and Ford's Chariot. However, cities will have to work with private companies that offer these services to ensure they are accessible to all residents.

Cities also can take steps to ensure their current transit systems are well-balanced and shift some resources from overserved areas to neighborhoods that are underserved. And modest investments can make a difference. For example, adjusting transit signals to give buses preference at intersections can make bus service more reliable by helping them stay on schedule.

Ultimately federal, state and agencies must work together to ensure an equitable distribution of transportation so that all citizens can fully participate in civil society. Identifying transit gaps is a first step toward solving this issue.

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1 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2018
The article is written by people who do not know the meaning of the word transit. A car is every bit as much a means of transit as a bu or a train. They all transport entities from one place to another. As a consequence, an areas serviced by an adequate network of roads where there are no laws against the ownership or use of automobiles, is no more a "transit desert" than a tropical rain forest is a regular desert. This is another junk science, politically motivated bunch of crap which will never be cited by any reputable researcher or scientist. In short a waste of time and money to produce and to read. May I respectfully submit that you find some editors who have a clue as to what the scientific method is and have a grasp of the English language. If it wouldn't be too much trouble.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2018
May I respectfully submit that you find some editors who have a clue as to what the scientific method is and have a grasp of the English language.
They should do the same for the commenters...
5 / 5 (3) Mar 13, 2018
I live in San Francisco, the cost of parking is totally overlooked in one of the replies to this article. Sadly the poster feels they understand everything immediately, and then posts, without considering the real economics, which would take a bit of research and analysis. The part about scientific method, in regards to their incomplete analysis that does not include the cost of storage of a vehicle, is a bit unfortunate.
not rated yet Mar 14, 2018
Transit deserts reinforce inequality

It's the other way around. Inequality creates transit deserts, as property values along the public transportation routes rise, and the poor people move to cheaper neighborhoods. Gentrification has the effect of pushing the poor further and further away from the city centers as they find places to live within their means.

The reason why these transit deserts are predominantly far away from the city centers is because the cost to implement public transportation, especially laterally, increases in the square of distance from center, due to the added area it needs to cover. That's why the routes extend out like tendrils, serving some areas but not others for cost-effectiveness: the busses go where there's people who can pay for the tickets, and those areas then become more attractive and the property values rise, leading to social stratification.

not rated yet Mar 16, 2018
The article is written by people who do not know the meaning of the word transit. A car is every bit as much a means of transit as a bu or a train. -mrburns.

From the article, which you obviously did not read: "[W]e used the number of transit-dependent people in each city as a proxy. A transit-dependent person is someone over the age of 12 who may need access to transportation but cannot or does not drive because he or she is too young, is disabled, is too poor to own a vehicle or chooses not to own a car."

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