Over the last three years, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has talked a lot about Ladders of Opportunity. Though the phrase would be at home at a self-help seminar, Foxx uses it to talk about the connection between transportation and jobs. In short, good multimodal transportation networks can play a huge role in connecting low-income residents to employment opportunities.
To that end, U.S. DOT has launched a $100 million Ladders of Opportunity grant for cities, the LadderStep technical assistance program and more. The agency’s latest push to prioritize the connection is an effort to create a National Transit Map of stops, routes and schedules from as many local and regional transit agencies as possible.
“[We need] a clear understanding of the full reach and limitations of transportation in America,” explains Daniel Morgan, DOT’s chief data officer. “For the first time, it is possible for DOT to collect schedule data from a large number of agencies. By combining this data into a National Transit Map, we will be able to better understand and illustrate the role of transit in America, understand where gaps in service exist, and help connect more Americans to opportunity.”
Step one of the project, beginning this week, is collecting General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data from transit agencies around the country. GTFS draws on route, schedule and stop information to allow trip planning. Google developed the format for its transit planning app and it has since been adopted as standard by most transit agencies. Earlier this month, Foxx issued an open letter to transit agencies asking for their voluntary participation in the mapping project.
Prior to the adoption of GTFS, creating such a map would’ve been unwieldy and likely produced an out-of-date product by the time it was completed. So while DOT has a database of America’s roads, bridges and railroads, Morgan says that database does not include fixed-route transit service or bus info. In fact, he explains that, “transit vehicles are often measured as just another vehicle in performance measures” despite obviously having far more passenger capacity than a private car.
Morgan says the map will help DOT better focus efforts and resources on those who need it most. And because GTFS data is open and machine-readable he explains, “it can be combined with other datasets such as car ownership rates and poverty data to understand which communities could gain the most from enhanced transit service.”
Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy at the American Public Transportation Association, is excited about any effort the federal government makes to help close America’s massive transit gaps.
“Only about half the public can get to work by transit,” Guzzetti says. “We need more of it. This map is really trying to make that point. There are job opportunities out there, but it’s essential that we connect people to those opportunities by transit.”
According to Guzzetti, DOT’s approach with the National Transit Map isn’t exactly new for local and regional planners or transit advocates.
“Using this GTFS data is part of what all regional plans do. They look at service gaps, Title VI requirements. You want to make sure your transit connects people to jobs. This DOT is just a way of bringing it up at a national level and bringing it into focus.”
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He sees it as the DOT taking an important step toward bolstering transit access for those roughly 45 percent of American households that have zero transit access.
Of course, knowing where the gaps are is somewhat meaningless if you don’t then make the investments to fill them.
“You can’t just say you have a problem, let’s solve it,” Guzzetti says. “Sure to some degree you can adjust your current route network, but we’re underfunding transit … . We’re not going to meet our goals until we increase funding.”
Funding issues aside, Guzzetti is excited about the impact technology is having on transit planning. “Four years ago not many transit systems were participating in a GTFS. Now most are. There’s so much happening in the data world. We can tell from these new data tools where the transit is, where people are, where the job centers are they need to connect with. We’re getting smarter.”
DOT hopes to release the first iteration of its National Transit Map this summer.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.