With all the hullabaloo over Google’s new invention — a car that can drive itself on regular streets — you’d think that America’s favorite company had found the solution for the world’s transportation dilemmas. There’s something magical about the idea that it is possible to replace other modes of transport with individual pods, speeding through traffic directly to and from one’s preferred destination.
This fantasy, however, does little for the growing ranks of impoverished people in a country that has been hit severely by the recession and whose unemployment and underemployment problems are far from being resolved soon. According to the Census Bureau, 14.3% of the nation’s population lived under the poverty line in 2009, representing 43.6 million individuals. With the cost of automobile ownership taking a huge chunk out of typical family incomes, transportation — specifically car-based mobility — represents a significant drain on peoples’ resources.
Efficient public transportation could provide a realistic solution for those problems, but the demographics of the newly poor suggest that transit is not a realistic option for a majority of those in poverty, because more and more of them live outside of city centers. A series of new reports from the Brookings Institution illustrates this fact dramatically.
Over the last ten years, more than two-thirds of poverty growth in the nation’s metro areas occurred in the suburbs, and there are now 1.6 million more poor people living in the suburbs than in center cities. Since 2000, there has been a general increase in the nation’s poverty rate, but it has been far worse in the suburbs than in the cities — a 37.4% increase versus 16.7%. Though the poverty rate remains higher in central cities, the number of poor suburbanites is growing quickly.
This is taking a major toll on social services providers, according to Brookings, because they cannot keep up with the growth. Moreover, the overall reduction in tax revenues has meant that faced with increases in demand, these providers have had no choice but to cut back.
Transit providers have been hit hard, too, but the fact is that the suburbs are not ready for the spread of the poor to the suburbs. That’s because areas of lower density are difficult to serve by buses and trains without expenses going through the roof and low ridership. Many new construction projects are for big expansions of the rail network downtown, where efficiencies of scale ensure actual use of these lines. In big metropolitan areas, the lack of fast transit has increased travel to work times significantly, making life harder for those who live far from their jobs — a frequent issue for those who live in the suburbs. Because for these people there frequently is no choice but to rely on the car, this means that there is no option but to reduce the number of trips taken, which is apparently what is happening to many households. But that is equivalent to less mobility for the people who arguably need it the most!
The Pratt Center for Community Development has recently documented some of those difficulties for people living in New York City. For example, more than half of the people in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn have commutes of more than an hour a day. The situation is likely worse in suburban neighborhoods, especially those where people do not have the disposable income available to drive cars and where transit services are minimal.
Richard Florida has recently written of the importance of remaking suburbs in the fashion of traditional town centers, with walkable connections to surrounding neighborhoods and good transit access. That seems like a reasonable long-term approach to increasing access and mobility for low-income households that live in places far from the city center.
But in the interim, a large number of poor people will continue to live in places where they have no choice but to drive their cars, even if they cannot afford to. It’s an impossible situation for policy makers struggling with fewer available funds. Nevertheless, the transportation plight of the poor suburbanites, people whose interests are rarely considered, continues.
Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation and governance.