Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

Missed Opportunities – A look at the Brookings Institute’s Study

Posted by Roobs on May 21, 2011

What does the Brookings Institute’s Study on Transit & Jobs Really Tell Us?


On May 12, 2011, the Brookings Institute released a first-of-its-kind study that looked at job accessibility in metropolitan areas via transit.  This exhaustive study took on the issue of job sprawl – the decentralization of jobs from the traditional downtown or urban core and out into the suburbs – and found that Western US cities’ transit systems, such as Los Angeles and Honolulu, have better job accessibility than their compact East Coast counterparts.  The reason is because Western cities’ transit systems were designed post-automobile.  That is to say, Western transit systems were designed to connect suburbs to central cities.

In summary, the Brookings study made the following conclusions:

  • Nearly 70% of large metropolitan residents live in neighborhoods with access to transit service of some kind.  This includes bus and light rail.
  • In neighborhoods covered by transit, morning rush hour service occurs about once every 10 minutes for the typical metropolitan commuter.
  • The typical metropolitan resident can reach about 30% of jobs in their metropolitan area via transit in 90 minutes.
  • About one-quarter of jobs in low- and middle-skill industries are accessible via transit within 90 minutes for the typical metropolitan commuter, compared to one-third of jobs in high-skill industries.
  • Fifteen of the 20 metro areas that rank highest on a combined score of transit coverage and job access are in the Western US and 15 of the 20 metro areas that rank lowest are in the Southern US.

Download the Study Here!

The Brookings study did not do one thing that has some critics crying foul.  The study did not look at performance as a function of ridership.  Because the study ignored ridership, instead to focus on job accessibility, does that make the study flawed?  Are its conclusions and ranking of transit systems somehow incorrect because of it? Some say yes. I say no.

The Brookings study measures overall access to transit in a metro area and access to jobs via transit. Measuring ridership isn’t necessary to determine whether or not your job is accessible to a transit stop or station.  Ultimately, the numbers  make perfect sense because the study is looking at the issue of job sprawl.

The Decentralization of Jobs

How can systems like San Francisco’s MUNI or the region’s BART system be ranked behind San Jose’s VTA system – a system that actually has the LEAST effective fare-box recovery of any transit system (in other words, really low ridership)?  The reason? The Brookings study measured how well a transit system connects people to jobs. Cities like San Jose and Los Angeles can do so well in this ranking because of the decentralization of jobs, or “jobs sprawl”.

Jobs in the US have been inching out of central urban areas for some time. Suburbs are not simply bedroom communities for commuters going into the central city.  Suburbs are now competing job centers.  The study found that in the nations largest metropolitan areas nearly half of all jobs are located more than 10 miles from Downtown.  To illustrate, this means that nearly half of all jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area are located not in San Francisco, but in Redwood City or Palo Alto.  Nearly half of all jobs are not  located in Oakland but in Walnut Creek or Concord.

The study found that 70% of working-age residents in the nations 100 largest metro areas live in neighborhoods served by some form of transit. This includes buses, rail and ferries.  For a region like San Jose’s, transit coverage is about 95% compared to about 91% of the Central Bay Area (San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont).  What this says is that San Jose’s transit network better serves both city and suburban residents compared to the Central Bay Area (though, not by too much).  The discrepancy is from the distribution of the regions population and jobs.

The maps and tables (download here: San Francisco , San Jose) show that, in the Central Bay Area, the job accessibility is highest in the core areas of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.  But areas outside of these areas, such as San Rafael, Walnut Creek and Fremont, have less job accessibility via transit.  We can also recognize that these areas with less job accessibility are areas of much lower-density than those with high job accessibility.  This reiterates a point of the study that suburbs have poorer access to transit than central city areas.

In San Jose, the map shows that the whole of the South Bay has good job accessibility via transit.  This is likely due to the fact that the South Bay is less dense than the Central Bay Area and its population and jobs are more evenly distributed throughout the metro area.  Unlike Oakland and San Francisco, San Jose lacks a dominant downtown core.  Thus, jobs are more evenly spread out from city to suburb.  With an equally spread out population, this means that residents in the city centers of San Jose and Santa Clara have almost as equal an access to jobs via transit as suburban residents, whether they utilize it or not.

Can you have a well designed transit system that no one rides?

An interesting question has come up as I researched this blog post.  The question is, can you have a well designed transit system that no one rides?  Or does the mere definition of a “well designed” system require it to have high ridership?  Here are my thoughts on this question:

First, if we are to measure a transit system’s success by its ability to recover an adequate amount of revenue from the farebox, then none of America’s transit systems can be considered successful.  The vast majority of transit systems in America do not recover enough fare-box revenue to cover all expenses.  New York’s transit systems – a transit system that many would consider successful – only has a 55% fare-box recovery  ratio (NYCMTA 2009) and Portland, OR ratio is only 35% (APTA 2009).

Of course, if we are to say that ALL of America’s transit systems fail at recovering enough money from fares to fund operations, then we can lower the bar a bit and say that a successful system is simply one that carry’s a lot of riders, regardless of a high fare-box recovery ratio.  If that’s the case, then surely New York City’s MTA and Portland’s TriMet are successful.  Similarly, San Francisco’s MUNI and the region’s BART system are also successful at carrying many passengers.  But the question you then must ask is where are they going?

Using the San Francisco Bay Area as an example, we can say that BART, MUNI and the East Bay’s AC Transit successfully move more passengers than San Jose’s VTA transit system.  But these systems are most successful at moving riders within the central areas, such as the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley to their final destinations: jobs.  But by comparison to San Jose’s VTA, they do not have the potential to reach the many residents outside the central area nor do they reach the growing number of jobs that are out in the suburbs.

So again, it comes down to how you want to measure success and what is implicitly defined when we say a “well designed” system.  Perhaps more an argument of semantics than anything else.

Does the Data Offer Real Value?

Let’s say you don’t like to see your beloved transit system, that you ride every day, ranked lower than a system you know has fewer riders. It might lead you to conclude there is something wrong with the study.  But the data doesn’t necessarily lie. It simply means they are using a metric that, frankly, hasn’t been used before.  Studying job access via transit is incredibly valuable and access to jobs should be a priority in transit development, land use and urban design.  If all we wanted to do was measure job access via transit in cities like San Francisco and New York, we would have nothing but good news.  But this also underscores the city-centric nature of transit (but not to say that cities aren’t good places for transit).

The study showed that city residents have better access to all sectors of the job market – low- , medium- and high-skill) than their suburban counterparts.  The working-age city resident can reach 46% of high-skilled jobs and 36% of medium- and low-skilled jobs via transit.  Suburban working-age residents, on the other hand, can reach only 24% of metro-wide high-skilled jobs and only 19% of middle- and lower-skilled jobs.

Further, the study looked at income as  factor when it comes to jobs and transit.  It showed that low-income city neighborhoods have better access to transit than low-income suburban neighborhoods. Also, high-skilled jobs are more likely to be located in the central cities compared to medium- to low-skilled jobs out in the suburbs.  This represents a disadvantage to low-income communities – who are most dependent on transit.  With suburbs having less job-accessibility via transit, this means that jobs lower-income communities are most suited for are unreachable.  The fact that San Jose outranks San Francisco shows that San Jose’s transit system does a better job at connecting residents of all incomes to jobs of all skill levels compared to San Francisco.  The data taken as a whole raises concern over the suburbanization of poverty and the need to better plan transit access to help link low-income suburban residents to jobs.

Download the Study Here!

Cities are no longer cities in isolation from one another.   Cities are part of an interdependent region where mobility is very important for economic vitality. We should know how well our transit gets people from suburb to city but also how well it gets people from suburb to suburb.  After all, a lot of the jobs are out there now.  Having this data is very important and useful for planners and policy makers.

Worthy Criticism

The final critique that is still up for grabs is on what basis can we truly judge “accessibility”.  The Brookings report measures the number of jobs within a 3/4 mile of a transit stop available to the working age individual.  However, the issue concerns a continuing question in transportation planning and urban design: how far are people REALLY willing to walk or travel to their nearest transit stop.  Three-quarters of a mile has been an accepted measure for a few years, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true.   It’s still up in the air and as more transit-oriented developments are constructed and new transportation systems are installed, we will be able to gather more mature information and have a better idea of what is the cap on travel.  Until then, I think 3/4 of a mile sounds about right.

Many still criticize the study for not using riderhsip data.  Afterall, how can a transit system like San Jose’s VTA be rated as a better transit system than San Francisco’s MUNI?  This is a fair criticism but it doesn’t make the data invalid or the study flawed.  If the study is flawed then critics need to show some methodological flaw, which I couldn’t find.  The purpose of the study was to measure job access via transit, not ridership. The data is true that, whether or not people use it, San Jose’s transit system can connect more people to more jobs. There is an issue of job sprawl that this report sheds light on: job sprawl is a problem in itself but also that transit hasn’t kept up with it.

Final Remarks

Finally, this data is not meant to come out and say that a transit system like San Jose’s should be a model for future systems across the country.  San Jose’s VTA is a very poorly ridden transit system regardless of how well it can get residents to and from jobs.  This should tell us that transit ridership isn’t necessarily based on the mere presence of transit.  This may fly in the face of light-rail enthusiasts with a “if you build it they will come” mentality.  Transit ridership is also affected by the policies of a region.  How well do we encourage residents to take transit when its there?  San Jose obviously has a transit system that is more than capable of accomplishing the many goals of transit planners, but San Jose is also easily navigable by the automobile.  There is plenty of parking if you want to drive from home to work and, lets be honest transit enthusiasts, the personal benefits of having your own car rock! So if you can, you probably will own a car. If we want to get more residents of San Jose, or any other city, to hop on the bus or train, we should look into policies that encourage it, such as a more appropriate pricing for parking and zoning to encourage TOD, which should include a parking requirement reduction for new developments.

The Brookings Institute has done a great job at measuring the effects of jobs sprawl across the country and the potential for transit to absorb trips away from the automobile.  Hopefully planners and policy makers will be able to use this data as they look to plan the future of America’s transit systems and policies.

Roobs is a masters student at the UCLA in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning with concentrations in Transportation Planning & Policy and Urban Design & Development.  Roobs is a former Waterfront Commissioner for the City of Berkeley and graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Legal Studies and Sociology.  Roobs worked as a clerk and paralegal for 5 years at the firm, Katzoff & Riggs in Emeryville, CA that specialized in real estate development.

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