Happening Now

Rail transit proves key to greater income mobility

August 5, 2013

Written By Colin Leach

Lighter colors represent areas where children from low-income families are more likely to move up in the income distribution.
Lighter colors represent areas where children from low-income families are more likely to move up in the income distribution.

While transit advocates know well the economic cost of congressional refusal to invest in public transit, it is often more difficult to quantify this refusal’s personal effect. For Stacey Calvin, it’s very easy: four hours. That’s the amount of time the Atlanta resident must spend taking a bus to catch a train, which in turn connects her to another train, which finally takes her to a bus that brings her to her part-time job at a daycare. Combining both her morning and evening commutes, she spends as much time traveling to her work as she does working. While she would very much want to move closer to her job, she cannot afford to do so because of prohibitively expensive rent. Thus, she has no alternative but to continue her daily sojourn across the city.

A new Harvard study confirms that Ms. Calvin’s story is not unique. In examining potential causes of economic mobility and immobility, the Harvard group suggested tha location mattered more than any other factor. Areas with higher economic mobility tended to be areas with two-parent households, better performing schools, and active citizen participation in community groups.

But one particular characteristic of economically mobile areas should stand out for rail advocates. Excluding all other factors, the authors found that upward mobility was more common in areas with mixed-income neighborhoods. Consequently, decreased mobility tended to be the rule in areas that are more heavily stratified based on income. As Emily Badger observed in her article discussing the study: This implies that the geography of cities themselves – how far out the jobs are, where people live relative to them, whether there's good transportation connecting the two – may have much to do with these nationwide patterns in the geography of upward mobility.

Many readers of this blog are already aware of the theory that rampant highway construction has been the cause of neighborhood division and economic stratification. By dividing existing neighborhoods in half and by creating easy paths from suburbs into city cores, highways have promoted economic growth in suburban areas at the expense of livable, vibrant neighborhoods in urban cores. Such is the thesis of Robert Bullard and Glenn Johnson in their 2000 volume Sprawl City, which examines problems of urban planning in Atlanta. Atlanta, which the Harvard study lists as one of the cities with the lowest income mobility in the country, has been subject to what Bullard terms “exclusionary practices” in transportation planning that have subsequently limited the ability of poorer residents to access better-paying jobs.

If highway-enabled urban sprawl is the disease, then transit-oriented development is the cure. By promoting the creation of sustainable, mixed-income neighborhoods in close proximity to work and leisure, transit-oriented development can do much to remedy the social ills caused by divided, inaccessible highways. And key to TOD’s success is a healthy investment in rail as well as existing bus services. As Todd Litman of the Victoria Transit Policy Instituted argued in a 2012 paper, rail is unique in that it is a proven “catalyst for urban redevelopment” by allowing for “flexibility” in street design and parking requirements. This flexibility allows for communities to set aside more space for public goods such as parks and community centers that they may otherwise be unable to.

Nations with historically grave problems of income mobility are beginning to realize the benefits of rail transit. The NARP Blog recently reported on how Brazil’s decision to invest in rail stems from a desire to rectify economic imbalances and lower the gap in income mobility. IfU.S. policymakers are determined to preserve upward income mobility for future generations, then they must recognize the primacy of rail transit in enabling the creation of sustainable mixed-income communities. Otherwise, Ms. Calvin’s commute will be the future for many, many more Americans.