Suburban Poverty and the Transit Connection

Today on the Streetsblog Network, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic looks at the new Brookings Institution report on suburban poverty levels and the connection to future transportation planning in those regions. Freemark, who recently wrote about how the city of Paris is extending its transit infrastructure to its traditionally lower-income suburbs, points out that the challenges to transit in American suburbs are greater. The infrastructure of American suburbs, as well as the governmental planning mechanisms, present significant challenges to reducing automobile dependence -- a dependence that weighs especially heavily on people with low incomes. Freemark writes:

212413348_bc6fd150ea.jpgTransit in American suburbs faces challenges. (Photo: richpix via Flickr)
Thus far, few metropolitan areas have responded adequately to the transportation concerns that will progressively manifest themselves; while central-city-oriented transit networks are promoted vigorously, the concerns of suburbs are sidelined (including by this site). This condition seems unlikely to improve, with few metropolitan areas actually planning as a region, unlike Paris, where transportation planning and financing is conducted from the regional level.

There are major differences between the U.S. and France: American suburbs are incredibly sprawled-out, which means that high-quality, high-capacity transit would be both inefficient and inappropriate in most places. Indeed, U.S. poverty can increasingly be defined as a car-dependent one — which means that expecting to address transportation needs of the least well-off in the suburbs through better public transportation will be a failure in the short-term. This also means, unfortunately, that policies that increase costs of driving will fall directly on a large number of the working poor.

The development of a more equitable and sustainable transportation system demands an intense effort to densify and pedestrianize the same suburbs that are rapidly becoming economically diverse. We cannot continue allowing — and often subsidizing — people to live in isolated cul-de-sac neighborhoods completely inaccessible to anything by anything but a private automobiles. We must construct new town centers in suburban communities with essential services and mixed-income housing accessible via transit to urban cores. The current trends, enforced by local, state, and national planning decisions, are producing a lower class that spends far too much on private transportation.

It’s a reckless course barreling straight towards increasing inequality.

More from around the network: takes a jab at creative-class promoter Richard Florida and his prescriptions for struggling cities. Cyclelicious tips a hat to the legacy of Donald Appleyard's classic book, "Livable Streets." And the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation reports on a study showing that helmet laws discourage cycling.