Transit’s Not the End of the Line for Low-Income Residents

By Benita M. Dodd

The bus stop in Durban, South Africa, where Benita Dodd waited every day.

The bus stop in Durban, South Africa, where Benita Dodd waited every day.

My trip downtown never was the mythical five miles barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways. It did, however, once use up a good part of the day. That B.C. (before cars) memory came flooding back recently as I read a couple of reports trumpeting the benefits of public transportation.

An Oakland (Calif.) Tribune story headlined, “Trains, boats beat cars in transit race to airport,” reported that a team of transit riders beat a team of drivers in a morning commute competition. And in a Sierra Club report, “Missing the Train: How the Bush Administration’s Transportation Proposal Threatens Jobs, Commutes, and Public Transit Ridership,” the environmental group declared federal funding for public transportation inadequate, noting that “roads receive $4 for every $1 spent on public transit.” 

“The administration’s short-sighted proposal keeps transit funding at insufficient, stagnant ratios and the poorest communities that need public transportation the most are those that will be least able to afford it under the Bush administration plan,” the Sierra Club wrote.

Mass transit is, of course, an important ingredient in the transportation mix. Reliable, efficient and cost-effective transportation is vital to low-income communities and a growing senior population. Transit obviously expands access to employment, health care and recreation. But hidden agendas are driving activist groups away from a basic directive of transportation policy: Get people from where they are to where they’re going as efficiently as possible. A concerted effort to inexorably tie public transportation and low-income communities ignores residents’ desire to conquer transit dependence. Transit is no ticket to freedom.

The Sierra Club’s anti-automobile campaign is because of concern that, “Motorists will make longer trips, increase miles traveled, and new roads will encourage more sprawl development.” Some people consider that a welcome freedom of choice. Those who decide to leave their cars and board the bus are entitled to that choice. Those who have no option but to take the bus, however, would prefer to be able to choose, too. Too often, activists see transit as a solution to automobile congestion without considering the cost of transit to the low-income worker.

Easy? Forget it. For me, first came the time-consuming walk to the bus stop, whether storm or swelter. The bus route is always predetermined. Convenient? The distance of the stop from the destination always is a constraining factor, whether shopping or job-hunting. Flexible? Hardly. Timing is crucial, because buses run on their schedule, not yours. A good day was arriving at the bus stop on time and finding a seat on a bus without a squalling baby or proselytizer on the hourlong trip. A better day was catching the standing room-only express bus that took the freeway to the city and made the trip in half the time. A great day was getting a ride from a friend in a passing car and arriving downtown in just 15 minutes. 

That was years ago and miles away, yet transit’s down side is a persevering and widespread issue. This year, a Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce survey found that two-thirds of motorists are willing to use transit at least some of the time, but only if it has the characteristics of their automobiles: They want cost-effective, comfortable, convenient and time-sensitive service.

Not surprisingly – and not for want of funding or expansion – transit use has declined, from 12.1 percent of workers in 1960 to 4.7 percent in 2000. In Georgia, 3 percent of workers took public transportation in 2002. In Fulton and DeKalb counties, the home of MARTA, 52-55 percent of transit riders took 45 minutes or longer to get to work, compared with no more than 15-17 percent of motorists.

Even transit’s triumph in the San Francisco commuter race was staged: The drivers had to travel not from their homes to their destination, but from the transit stations. And to highlight the “productivity benefits” of public transit, drivers had to park and complete “a word search puzzle, answering questions from newspaper articles and answering several questions about Bay Area transit agencies” to simulate how transit riders can check e-mail, work, socialize or relax.

The federal Department of Transportation reports 65 percent of transit trips involve passengers using transit for less than four years; 30 percent of trips involve passengers using transit less than a year and 10 percent are by passengers using transit for less than a month. “For these persons, transit may be serving as a temporary means of transportation until they are able to purchase a car,” the DOT speculates.

The mantra of many activists that transit is the aspiration of the needy smacks of arrogance and elitism. Groups use environmental pretexts to hinder growth and push costly public transportation projects that do more to restrict low-income people from the opportunity to travel when and where they want, with whom they want.

Those who are concerned about the toll of commuting on the workforce would do better to encourage programs that provide workers and families with the opportunities to improve their economic situation. From private jitneys to taxis to automobile programs for welfare recipients, those opportunities exist and provide cost-effective transportation programs.

Face it, nobody but the bus driver waits at the stop daydreaming about a better bus.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 25, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.