Workforce Development

Creating More Accessible Public Transportation

October 7, 2014  • Alice Lee, Guest Blogger

Above, watch the full session of “Getting to Work: Improving Public Transportation for America’s Workers, Employers, and Economies.”

One of the biggest barriers in connecting people to jobs is the lack of accessible public transportation from the home to the workplace. To help overcome this problem, changes have to be made to the many layers of the public transportation system and its infrastructure.

The Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program brought together prominent transportation policy leaders and innovators to discuss the current status of public transportation as well as solutions to make it more accessible as part of the program’s “Working in America” series.

One problem often seen within cities with public transportation is that the routes and services cater more towards “choice riders” than “core riders.” Choice riders are people who have access to other modes of travel besides public transit but may choose public transportation because of convenience or lower cost. Core riders are people whose only means of travel is public transit.

“There’s some research coming out of the Dukakis [Center] at Northeastern University that really shows…an undue focus on choice riders at the expense of those who are the core riders,” said Anita Hairston, the associate director of PolicyLink. “And that tends to be low-income individuals, people of color.”

To overcome this inequity and provide accessible transportation for all people, we first need to drop the term ‘choice riders’ altogether, said Beverly Scott, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and administrator of the MassDOT Rail and Transit.

“[The term] is at the heart of what we have done in the United States too often, which is that we are building systems for somebody else to use as opposed to ourselves,” she said. “We will try to offer and should [have] the best system we can regardless of whether we are serving a prince or a pauper.”

Scott emphasized that in order to build a system for all, we need a holistic focus on “people, communities, and outcomes.”  

“This is really a conversation first and foremost about what kind of outcomes we want,” Scott said. “So… if we want to wind up having healthy communities and healthy lifestyles, if we want to wind up having job creation and economic development, if we want to wind up having energy independence, then that comes down to a conversation not about investing in infrastructure and things, but it is investing in people and communities.”

One example of transportation expansion that was driven by the goal of improving the jobs and economic outcomes of a community occurred in Phoenix, Arizona. According to Yvonne Hunter, chair of Friends of Transit and leader in the Employer-Driven Transit Means Business campaign, a main reason why policymakers finally agreed to expand a multi-modal transportation system was the support of Arizona’s business community. The funds eventually went to building a light rail, increasing bus service, and improving freeways.

“[The business community] immediately recognized that the quality of life for the workers, for the citizens, to be that good citizen member of the state, required that we have a more robust transportation system,” Hunter said. “And so it was the effort of the business community that got behind several efforts to try to fund transportation in Arizona, primarily the greater Phoenix area, and then have the success that we were able to achieve thus far.”

Joan Byron, director of Policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development, also noted that in addition to people in the business community, grassroots organizations have played a pivotal role over the years in helping create better transit systems for the community. When trying to pass Bus Rapid Transit to improve the home-to-job commute in New York City, grassroots organizations representing diverse groups of people ultimately persuaded council members and legislators to support the resolution. 

“Today we have a sea change,” Byron continued. “Seven years later, we’ve got a majority in the City Council in support of Bus Rapid Transit. They’re going to pass a resolution requiring the city to pick up the pace…So the grassroots activism in organizing has made a difference. And the presence of people of color in that [Bus Rapid Transit] movement is new. The [modern] mainstream transportation movement has been kind of ‘owned’ by us white environmental types and that’s changing, and that makes a difference.”