Happening Now

Top Talent Demands Transit, and Employers Are Responding

December 3, 2018

by Sean Jeans-Gail, Rail Passengers Association

One of the most difficult tasks for any transit advocate is to accurately capture the benefits of a transit project. Transit systems aren’t built as profit making ventures, so ridership and revenue aren't enough. They’re built to support the basic economic and civic activities every community requires in order to thrive.

Highway advocates, meanwhile, tend to rely on a closed system. Highway construction begets destinations accessible only by car, which begets more driving, which begets more highway construction. The existing raison d'etre for the highway program is to generate more vehicle miles driven, which sustains more highway construction, which generates more vehicle miles driven, and so on. (Of course this funding framework has largely collapsed, which is why the feds have spent over $140 billion in general taxpayer revenue subsidizing highway construction in the last decade. But that hasn't slowed down spending on construction, so we'll proceed with our argument.)

Rail Passengers is always working to overcome the intertia of this system: educating legislators about the towns and communities that depend on these rail corridors, the environmental and energy benefits of transit, and the economic activity generated by building new rail lines. Currently, we’re finalizing a model that will allow us to quantify the economic benefits of individual intercity rail corridors.

Nevertheless, it’s always helpful when the private sector that depends on transit speaks out in favor of these networks. In their search for a second headquarters, Amazon highlighted the necessity of transit access by making it a requirement for candidate cities. The company eventually selected Arlington, VA and Queens, NY for additional corporate campuses—both sites within a short walk of a subway system.

And in reporting last week, NPR looked at how McDonalds—whose drive-throughs are an icon of American car dependence—has traded its suburban campus built around sprawling parking lots for a new location built around transit and walkability:

A few months ago, McDonald's traded the lawns, trees and ponds of its suburban home for sidewalks, concrete, glass and steel and moved into a new corporate headquarters building, just west of downtown Chicago. It's within walking distance of a stop on two Chicago Transit Authority "L" lines, two Metra commuter rail stations and several bus stops and is easy to get to by bicycle.

"We actually at one point knew that 97 percent of our folks were arriving by themselves in a car," says Sheri Malec, director of workplace solutions for McDonald's. She says the 80-acre parklike setting worked well for the company through the '70s, '80s and '90s, but more recently, the remote, suburban location made it difficult for McDonald's to attract and retain talent — especially millennials.

"For a job open on my team a couple weeks ago I interviewed a young woman and she confided in me, 'You know, I really wouldn't have applied for the job if it had been in Oak Brook, because I don't own a car,' " Malec says.

Just this fall, Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews defended transit investment from libertarian attacks on the main stage at the Cato Institute. In light of the libertarian assertion that transit is a dead technology, replaced by the automobile, it’s ironic that the free market is coming down so definitely on the need for more transit capacity.

Of course, our nation’s biggest transit systems are groaning under the strain of deferred maintenance and the need for capacity upgrades. That doesn’t even touch on the many cities with little or no transit; if these cities don't have the infrastructure to compete with the handful of biggest cities in the US, they will lose out on top employers and regional inequality will continue to grow.

So as Congress begins its next round of post-election infrastructure talks, already stumbling over the question “but who will pay for it?”, the answer may be simpler than we first thought: the very corporations who are saying transit is essential to their businesses.