How Better Mobility In Cities Is A Win For Everyone

December 25th 2017

Kyle Fitzpatrick

The way someone gets around a city has a huge impact on their pocketbook. 

While getting to work in the morning might be as simple as hopping behind the wheel of a car for some, for others, the daily commute poses a massive economic challenge. 

Low income people are often forced to rely on public transportation to get around, and unfortunately, these transportation systems are failing them and preventing easy access to work, healthcare, education, and food. This is a serious matter, as access to transportation is seen as a crucial means of helping people escape poverty, because time spent commuting can suck out so many opportunities from a person’s life.

So how can we better serve these communities? With better biking, train, and bus infrastructures that offer more effective mobility for everyone.

Cycle tracks can pave ways to opportunity and health.

While biking might seem like a hipster fad, that’s a shallow stereotype. The majority of people who bike in cities are lower-income. Unfortunately, bike routes in cities are designed and designed for those with more economic advantages, which stifles literal and economic mobility for certain communities.

Anne Lusk, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Research Scientist, has been researching the bicycle preferences of low-income communities for decades. Her findings, which include low-income cyclists preference for cycle tracks and riding with family members—have been crucial to reshaping how cities design bike infrastructure. 

She told ATTN: that how a city shapes bike travel is “based on the perception of a white male who tends to be fit.” Such assumptions, Lusk explains, tend to overlook low-income preference for family rides and for cycle tracks – bike lanes that are dedicated to bikers instead of unsafely integrated onto pre-existing roads – which make more riders feel safer not to mention afford cultural opportunities representative of those who use the track most.

Given Lusk's findings that most urban riders tend to be low-income, it's "unconscionable" that urban biking infrastructure isn't sensitive to their preferences. 

“Imagine if they had safe, wide cycle tracks,” Lusk said. “It’s unconscionable that we aren’t proving them the safe bicycle infrastructure.”

When buses and trains go further, people go further.

For those who don’t bike, buses and trains are a huge part of life. Unfortunately, buses and trains don’t go the distance – and people suffer. Recent research by the University Of Southern California found that car commuters have 30 times greater job accessibility than their public transportation counterparts who, unfortunately, suffer from being unable to effectively get to bus and train stops without access to a car or bike.

Denise Harlow, CEO of Community Action Partnership, a nonprofit seeking to empower low income communities, views the problem as connecting a person to where they need to go. “Public transport is often built in that urban core,” Harlow tells ATTN:. “Where people live now may not be accessible to light rail or even bus routes. It’s critical that you hear the voices of all aspects of the community.”

The reality of life with public transportation is that the infrastructure doesn’t necessarily focus or reach those in vulnerable communities. For example: a Brookings Institute study from 2011 found that only a quarter of jobs in low and middle skilled industries could be reached by public transportation within 90 minutes. This creates accessibility gaps which, when compounded by how late or long public transportation is available, becomes a bigger issue.

This gets even trickier in smaller cities where the likelihood of building more robust, wider reaching bus and train routes aren’t an option. For this, Harlow sees cars as helping connect the dots between lower income persons, public transportation, and work. “In rural and small cities, you’re not going to build a bus transportation quickly,” Harlow explains. Cars can be an effective option in enabling people to “maintain that job” and “take on these extra shifts and get from work to home” with the help of a vehicular segue. These programs can take myriad forms, from car purchasing assistance efforts to transportation to get you to public transportation, but are all effective means of mitigating barriers in travel.

Don't overlook buses. 

While expanding rail lines may have an urban planning sex appeal to the affluent, instituting bus lines and more frequent buses are a more practical, quick solution.

According to Anne Brown, PHD candidate in Urban Planning at UCLA’s Institute For Transportation Studies, this is a real solution that can help low income populations. “The thing that people are most concerned about is reliability,” Brown tells ATTN:. “If [a bus] is 20 minutes late, will you miss your job? Will you get fired? Reliability and frequency are tied to each other.”

“Buses are the backbone of the transit system,” Brown adds. “And they’re chronically under invested.” For example, researchers in Los Angeles observed that a focus on rail tends to be coupled with a lack of investment in bus lines, even though they tend to be more useful to low-income people. 

These changes can be made fairly simply by making priority lanes for buses which focus the streets on moving people instead of traveling vehicles, Brown said. “People who don’t have cars use transit for everything. They use it to get their kids, to get groceries...If you don’t have a car, young people are less likely to participate in after school activities because it’s harder to get to them.”

There’s no simple answer with transportation – but listening helps.

The clearest solution in getting more lower income people around town is having their voices get heard. Lusk, Harlow, and Brown all noted this, emphasizing how getting people to city council meetings with the tools to express what they need is key.

Moreover, helping vulnerable populations in cities requires a resetting of how we see them; it’s about the humans. “There’s no silver bullet,” Brown said of solving these problems, before offering a very practical reframing of the problem: “People over vehicles.”