Let’s face it: American public policy has yet to respond to or even grasp the profound change in settlement patterns that has been gradually making its mark on the nation’s landscape over the past few decades.
Cities from Detroit to Des Moines have been pushing the gentrification of their downtowns, with generally positive results, and the results are well documented.
But more consequential to a far larger group is the mass out-migration of impoverished people from center cities into the suburbs, often in the same metropolitan areas. According to a recent Brookings Institute Study, the process is accelerating. Between 2000 and 2008, the percent of poor people living in the suburbs increased by 25%, compared to by 5.6% in central cities and 15.4% for the nation as a whole. More of the poor now live in the suburbs than in central cities: 12.5 million versus 11 million.
The out-migration of the lower-middle class has been just as notable.
From a transportation perspective, this change in the lifestyles of the poor will have a significant effect. Public transit works best when it’s in dense urban centers because it can provide efficiencies of scale by offering service to many people at the same time. This allows it to be cheap enough to satisfy most of the transportation needs of the poor — but only if they live in communities that can be adequately served by buses and trains.
When urban poverty was concentrated in the inner city, at least those who lived there were able to have relatively quick and convenient access via train or bus to the jobs in the downtown office core.
Unfortunately, the increasing presence of poor people in the suburbs means a growing share of the population that lives in sprawling neighborhoods where the provision of mass transit is limited at best — and cannot be expanded at a reasonable cost.
It’s worth looking at one particularly affected region — the Washington, D.C. metro area — to understand what’s going on. According to the Brookings report, the number of poor people in the region’s core cities, including Washington, Arlington, and Alexandria, decreased by 15,000 between 2000 and 2008, to 121,000. In the suburbs, on the other hand, the number of poor exploded by 40,000 to 251,000. Though the poverty rate in the central cities remains higher, the sheer number of poor people in the suburbs is much greater. And it means that the people living in transportation-rich inner-cities are becoming relatively wealthier.
An Urban Land Institute/Center of Housing Policy report from last year clarified both the causes and the effects of those changes. The primary explanation of the migration is the availability of low-cost housing on the suburban fringe in Maryland and Virginia; though lodging is still relatively cheap in many of the eastern parts of the District, suburban homes are both cheap and new. Even more attractive is the fact that suburbs promote the image of a crime-free, pastoral environment, a perception that unfortunately tends to fade away once too many poor people make the leap out of the inner-city core.
The high rate of foreclosures in Washington’s eastern and southern suburbs is indicative of the degree to which the lower-middle class has chosen to leave the inner city. The primary consequence of this move away from the dense core is an increase in transportation costs, primarily because of a corresponding increase in the use of private automobiles: the Urban Land Institute report documents an almost inverse relationship between housing prices and transportation costs. Suburban dwellers — rich or poor — find themselves in a situation where their only choice is driving relatively expensive cars.
When a family simply can’t afford to own and operate an automobile, the result is a massive reduction in mobility.
In this context, Celia Dugger’s recent article in The New York Times about Johannesburg, South Africa’s new bus rapid transit system seems particularly relevant. Her discussion of the difficulties of commuting for a nanny living far from the wealthy enclave in which she works is framed in terms of the long-term effects of apartheid, but her situation described could also be interpreted as yet another example of the class-based segregation that disrupts the lives of the working poor in many major cities.
Do U.S. cities provide adequate transportation for people in poor, suburban communities? Surely not in every case, since Americans of all income classes face increasingly long commutes that often don’t seem much different than that of the South African woman profiled in the Times article. Many metropolitan regions have developed in a way that requires a large percentage of the population to take hours-long journeys to get from home to work. This is not a problem confined to the southern hemisphere.
Are the American poor seriously limited by their place in the urban landscape? Can we build housing in a denser manner throughout metro regions, in both inner cities and suburbs, to ensure that we can provide adequate transit everywhere? Can we find ways to encourage the poor to stay in the cities, where they have greater mobility?
I don’t have easy answers to any of these questions, but current federal and local policy does not address the commuting needs of the suburban poor. Too many federal dollars are spent in an effort to attract people to cheap home loans and onto new highways — incentives that ultimately inspire people to move out of the inner-cities, where transportation is cheaper. Meanwhile, neither the federal government nor states have shown leadership in promoting a new way of thinking about and developing the suburbs, whose form remains stuck in the 1950s model, one that may be appealing but which is ultimately difficult to promote for people at the bottom of the income bracket.
Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.