In the US, transit deserts are making it hard for people to find jobs and stay healthy

Many Americans need reliable public transit to get to school or work. Image: Frank Hank/creative commons.

As any commuter who has experienced unreliable service or lives miles away from a bus stop will tell you, sometimes public transit isn’t really a viable option, even in major cities.

In our car-loving society, where 85 per cent of Americans use a car to get to work, people who cannot access transportation are excluded from their own communities and trapped inside “transit deserts.” This term, which one of us (Junfeng Jiao) coined, describes areas in a city where demand for transit is high but supply is low.

Lack of transit has harmful effects on those who rely on public transit – generally, people who are too young, too old, too poor or have disabilities that don’t allow them to drive. Mapping these deserts will help agencies adjust transit services and better serve their communities.

At UT Austin’s Urban Information Lab, our research focuses on refining the methods used to quantify and measure transit supply and demand. We’ve developed clear and concise geographic information system (GIS) methods to evaluate transportation systems, providing alternatives to previous, more complicated network modeling. These methods can quickly be applied to any location, as we have shown in studies of five major cities in Texas and other cities across the United States. By using this method, we found that hundreds of thousands of transit-dependent people in Texas don’t have access to mass transit systems.

Connecting people to jobs and services

Research shows that low-income residents living in sprawling areas have limited transportation options, which constrains their job opportunities and upward mobility. Inadequate transportation keeps people from finding work, which then reduces the productivity of their communities. It also can limit access to medical services, causing health problems to go undetected or worsen.

Addressing transit access is one important strategy for tackling broader social problems. For example, welfare recipients are less likely to own cars or have access to transit than the general population. Reducing these transportation barriers would help move them from welfare to work.

In cities with well-developed infrastructure for cycling, such as Amsterdam, large shares of the population commute by bicycle. Image: Steven Lek/author provided.

Although scholars have been studying “food deserts” (areas where residents lack access to nutritious food) for several decades, we have only recently applied this logic to mass transportation systems, despite the fact that food deserts often occur due to lack of transportation.

Relatively little research has been carried out to identify and quantify gaps between transit demand and supply. But as counties and cities feel the effects of declining funding from federal and state transportation user fees, they need new ways to target transportation infrastructure investments and ensure limited resources are used in the best way possible. We have found that maps are a promising way to guide these discussions.

Mapping transit deserts

Determining exactly who relies on mass transit can be difficult. Existing information depends on census data. As previously noted, people who rely on transit are usually from marginalised demographic groups. They may be elderly, poor or have disabilities that keep them from driving. Census data do not account for the fact that sometimes these populations overlap (a transit-dependent person could be old as well as poor), so one individual could be counted many times.

Also, census data on car ownership are not available at the census block group level, which is the smallest geographic unit published by the U.S. Census Bureau. This lack of data makes it hard to measure transit dependency with accuracy.

Measuring transit supply is easier. It relies on data from municipal planning agencies as well as relevant municipal and county GIS departments, which manage spatial and geographic information, analysis tools and mapping products. These agencies measure variables that include numbers of transit stops, transit routes and frequency of service, as well as lengths of sidewalks, bicycle lanes and low speed-limit routes (which are relevant because some commuters may opt to walk instead of taking the bus).

Beyond city centers

Current research shows that transit deserts exist all over the country. Cities such as Chicago; Cincinnati; Charlotte, North Carolina; Portland, Oregon; and San Antonio contain multiple communities that don’t have enough transit services to meet existing demand. Even in older cities, where development tends to follow transit lines, there are neighborhoods where the supply of transit is simply not enough.

This is a large-scale problem. In San Antonio, the seventh-largest U.S. city by population, some 334,530 people – nearly one-fourth of the population – need access to public transportation in a city that doesn’t even have rail service. In Chicago, where there are high levels of transit dependency all across the city, just three of the transit desert neighborhoods that we identified house approximately 176,806 residents. Even in a city as progressive as Portland, Oregon, thousands live in transit desert neighborhoods.

Transit desert analysis for the city of San Antonio. Negative numbers connote areas where demand for transit exceeds supply. Image: author provided.

When it comes to geographic location, transit demand and supply appear to follow certain spatial patterns. Unsurprisingly, transit supply is highest in city centers and decreases as distance from city centers increases. As a result, transit deserts do not typically occur in city centers or near downtown. In fact, because of the typical “hub and spoke” design of many transit services, city centers often have transit surpluses where supply outstrips demand.

The location of transit deserts often does not follow a geographic pattern, although they are usually associated with low-income and remote areas. While planners and engineers may have a rough idea of where supply is low, making service adjustments requires measuring and mapping of transit supply and demand citywide.


Rebalancing transit networks

Many cities are now making service adjustments to improve service to transit deserts. For example, Houston’s transit authority, METRO, recently redesigned its bus service as part of a larger “Transit Service Reimagining,” in an attempt to better meet the region’s mobility needs. Evaluation of the new transit services shows that current levels of transit demand and supply are more balanced, though gaps still exist.

Identifying transit deserts is even catching on at the federal level. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently launched a new initiative to map transit deserts nationally through a National Transit Map, which will put together data from different transit agencies into a complete feed. By accessing a larger, national look at transit demand and supply, regional agencies will have extra tools available to them when making changes to their local transit services.

What these changes will be is hard to say. Expanding existing bus services may be the most cost-effective way to improve transit access. Even in New York City, with its massive subway system, city officials are increasingly turning to bus rapid transit due to the high cost of adding new subway lines.

Adding bus lines, increasing service hours and even streamlining boarding and fares can help improve service and increase access. Integrating bicycling with transit services would be another cost-effective option.

The ConversationAs research on transit deserts continues to grow, more precise methods of quantifying the gap between transit supply and demand should develop. More research may provide new views on how the built environment and socioeconomic variables affect transportation accessibility. With careful planning and investment, these transit deserts can eventually transform into transit oases.

Junfeng Jiao is assistant professor of community & regional planning and director of the Urban Information Lab, and Nicole McGrath an MS candidate in community & regional planning, at University of Texas at Austin.

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

 
 
 
 

Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.