Connecting Jobs to Public Transit

Connecting Jobs to Public Transit

A high-quality public transit system creates a variety of benefits for a metropolitan area. As Transportation for America and its hundreds of members explain, metro areas that give people a choice to use transit strengthen the local economy, improve public health, promote social equity, and protect the environment. More specifically, transit:

  • Increases worker satisfaction and productivity by reducing commuting times;
  • Protects family budgets by enabling households to get by with one car or no car instead of two or three;
  • Cushions the impact of high gasoline costs on working families;
  • Reduces traffic and thereby lessens air pollution and associated respiratory disease;
  • Lowers highway maintenance costs by reducing road wear and tear;
  • Encourages people to do more walking and thereby reduces obesity; and
  • Expands job opportunities for workers who cannot afford a car.

The Center for Transit-Oriented Development defines TOD as walkable development that occurs within 1/2 mile of a rail or rapid bus transit stop, is linked to a network of walkable/bikeable streets, and contains mixed-use retail, residential, and workplace activities. TOD can provide residents with improved quality of life and reduced household transportation expenses. It can also provide the region with stable mixed-income neighborhoods that reduce environmental impacts and provide alternatives to traffic congestion.  

Race, Poverty and Sprawl

The negative effects of sprawl disproportionately affect low-income families and people of color. Although some smart growth activists focus on environmental and quality-of-life issues, there is a crucial and large social-equity wing of the movement that views sprawl through the lenses of race and class. See the Statement of Principles of Transportation for America's Social Equity Caucus for a summary.

One aspect of this critique is automobile ownership patterns. Census data show that African-Americans are about three and a half times more likely to not own a car than white families; for Latino households it is about two and a half times. This creates a discriminatory labor market when new jobs locate in suburban areas not accessible by public transit.

Those working families that do own a car—or two or three in order to get to work—are taking on an expensive burden. The Center for Neighborhood Technology has analyzed neighborhood affordability across the nation, including the costs of both housing and transportation. In many cities for families earning between $20,000 and $50,000 a year, CNT found, the cost of transportation (overwhelmingly auto-related costs) equals or exceeds the cost of housing.

For working families with or without a car, sprawl amounts to a tax upon their standard of living. It suppresses their incomes and raises their bills. Enabling everyone to reach good jobs via public transportation means more money for family savings, health care, home equity, and college educations.

Subsidies, Transit and Job Availability

When state and local governments subsidize development projects, they write the rules. They can define and target eligibility standards for the receipt of government assistance. Such criteria could include a requirement that any subsidized project be accessible to public transit. Yet this common-sense notion is all but unheard of in the United States. A 2003 Good Jobs First study called Missing the Bus: How States Fail to Connect Economic Development with Public Transit found that not one single state requires or encourages companies that receive subsidies to locate the projects at locations accessible by public transportation (even in dense urban areas with lots of transit).

At the same time, there is growing evidence that job subsidies encourage companies to move to areas that are inaccessible for many urban working families. As we summarize on our Subsidies and Sprawl page, after analyzing more than 5,000 deals in 13 metro areas, Good Jobs First has concluded that economic development subsidies are a driving cause of sprawl.

State “Policy Silos” and Location-Efficient Incentives

The core policy problem here can only be fixed by state lawmakers. States suffer from having two separate “policy silos:” one for economic development subsidies and another for transportation and land use planning. The left hand is fighting the right hand. The challenge for state policymakers is to break down these silos, to make location-efficient incentives.

The basic idea of location-efficient incentives is simple: economic development subsidies should serve the public interest by promoting efficient use of land and infrastructure. By providing subsidies preferentially to companies locating near public transportation, or creating equivalent access or affordable housing, location-efficient incentives create more opportunity for low-income workers without cars, thus contributing to a healthier environment.

Three states -- California, Maryland, and Illinois -- have enacted reforms that begin to break down these wasteful “silos.” A fourth, New Jersey, has enacted a subsidy to promote density around transit hubs.

In California, the state's Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank has application standards for its Infrastructure State Revolving Fund Program that strongly favor transit-oriented, higher density projects. Using a 200-point scoring system, the loan program gives preference to projects that: serve environmental and housing goals by being located in or adjacent to already developed areas; are “located in or adjacent to and directly affecting, areas with high unemployment rates, low median family income, declining or slow growth in labor force employment;” and improve the quality of life by contributing to public safety, healthcare, education, day care, greater use of public transit, or downtown revitalization.

Illinois, at the urging of business-civic group Metropolis 2020 and others, enacted the Business Location Efficiency Incentive Act in 2005. It gives a small additional corporate income tax credit under one common state incentive (Economic Development in a Growing Economy, or EDGE) for deals in which the job site is accessible by public transportation and/or proximate to affordable workforce housing.

In Maryland, then-Governor Parris Glendening led the enactment of the state's Smart Growth Areas Act in 1997. The law designates Priority Funding Areas (PFAs), defined as those areas already served by water and sewer infrastructure or that are planned to receive them (both urban and rural). Under the law, projects located outside PFAs are ineligible for both state infrastructure aid and economic development incentives. However, the law does not tie in specifically to transit.

In New Jersey, the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit Act was created anew in 2008 to generously subsidize redevelopment within a half-mile of train stations. However, it is not a reform of an existing economic development program to make jobs more transit-accessible.