People are stranded in transit deserts in cities across the US

A woman waits for a bus during a storm in Tampa, Florida. Image: Getty.

Less than four 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 transit, 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 analysed 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 transit systems, 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 per cent of residents were transit dependent. But surprisingly, even in block groups that have enough transit service to meet demand, 38 per cent of the population was transit dependent. This tells us that there is broad need for alternatives to individual car ownership.

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. Image: Urban Information Lab, University of Texas – Austin/creative commons.

For example, we found that 22 per cent 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 per cent 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.

Expanding New York City’s bike lanes has given commuters an alternative to the deteriorating subway system.

Transit deserts reinforce inequality

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

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 can also 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 city 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.

The ConversationJunfeng Jiao, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning and Director, Urban Information Lab, University of Texas at Austin and Chris Bischak, Masters of Community and Regional Planning Candidate, University of Texas at Austin.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.