Brookings Institution: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America

Photo by Ian Freimuth.

Nearly 70 percent of metropolitan residents live in neighborhoods with access to transit service, but only about 30 percent of metro jobs are accessible through these mass transit systems. Photo by Ian Freimuth.

The Metropolitan Policy Program (MPP) at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. yesterday hosted “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” an event that coincided with the release of Brookings’ first-of-its-kind analysis on public transit’s ability to link workers to jobs in metropolitan America. Panelists discussed whether now is the time to invest in public transit, in the midst of high gas prices, and whether public transit is ready to respond to an increase in ridership demand.

The new study is an effort to fundamentally change the dialogue between transit agencies, regional employers and housing and social advocates, said Bruce Katz, the vice-president and director of MPP. Researchers analyzed 371 transit systems in the top 100 metropolitan areas in America using geospatial data, forming the largest database ever collected in Brookings’ history.


Commuting has become a heroic act as people commute farther and farther away to get to jobs, Katz said. According to the study’s results, 45 percent of top metro jobs are located 10 miles away from the central business district. The study further shows that 93 percent of households reported a decline in wealth or a major increase in spending. With low- and moderate-income families facing the largest burden of a lack of transit and jobs connection, Katz explained that a “more jobs/better jobs” mentality simply will not be sufficient. “It’s not enough to create jobs if people can’t get to them,” he said.

Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at Brookings, followed Katz’s remarks with more statistics and other general findings of the study. According to Puentes, 10 billion mass transit trips take place every year in America’s top 100 metropolitan areas. These cities make up 65 percent of the nation’s population and are responsible for 75 percent of its economic output. Linking transit and jobs will be a critical step in achieving sustainability, both environmentally and economically, considering that 32 percent of carbon emissions come from the transportation industry, and America’s population is expected to grow by an additional 130 million people by 2050.

Puentes pointed to lack of a comprehensive and consistent source of national transit information. The Brookings study aims to fill that gap, providing the following findings and recommendations:

The failure of the transit system to connect jobs and workers. Although the study found that nearly 70 percent of metropolitan residents live in neighborhoods with access to transit service, only about 30 percent of metro jobs are accessible through these mass transit systems. People who live in the suburbs have even less access to jobs. In short, there is a disconnect between where people live and where they work.

The great variation in transit coverage in metro areas. Los Angeles, New York City, Miami and Washington, D.C. have transit coverage that surpasses the national average. However, cities like Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and Greenville fail to meet the national average. When looking at combined transit performance, metropolitan areas in the west outperform those in the south. One explanation for this disparity is that investments and policy focus on transit systems in these regions. Another explanation is the general approach to urban growth management. According to Puentes, the south failed to accomplish the same level of success in mass transit ridership because of little or no growth management strategies. Part of the reason the west was more successful at growth management is because of topographical barriers that organically restrict growth and sprawl. Few topographical barriers mean fewer restrictions to sprawl.

Establishing a new game plan for helping Americans get to work. Severe budget constraints and rapidly fluctuating energy prices and transportation costs have been great obstacles to expanding transit. Puentes recommended investing in key fixed route systems and deploying flexible, lower-cost transit options. Developing land use policies that encourage transit-oriented development (TOD) is crucial in building this network. The most important step in alleviating the mismatch between transit and job accessibility is the kind of jobs that are available and not simply the amount of jobs, Puentes added.

Creating a comprehensive national transit database . One of the study’s deliverables is an online interactive map that allows users to see how transit in their area performs. Built in partnership with Microsoft, the map aims to create a more standardized national transit database. When most agencies might lack the skills to provide this kind of data to its users, Brookings tries to show how a small investment in data can transform mass transit ridership.

The Metropolitan Policy Program created an interactive map to allow individuals to see how their regional transit systems compare to the nation.

The Metropolitan Policy Program created an interactive map to allow individuals to see how their regional transit systems compare to the rest of the nation.


The first panel was moderated by Robert Thomson, a columnist for The Washington Post, best known by his pen name “Dr. Gridlock.” Panelists included:

  • Keith Parker, Chief Executive Officer, VIA Transit System (San Antonio, Texas)
  • Matthew Mahood, President and CEO, Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce
  • Alan Berube, Senior Fellow and Research Director, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution
  • Ponsella Hardaway, Executive Director at Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES)

The panelists agreed that regional cooperation is key to improving mass transit for cities.

According to Hardaway, the biggest obstacle to establishing a comprehensive transit system in Detroit has been a lack of conversation between operating agencies. Initially started as a three-mile light rail line, the city’s Woodward Avenue Line has been stalled because of political debates about who will get to control the system. Hardaway said that the establishment of a regional transit authority would solve that problem and bring funding to the project. The biggest problem has been an issue of political will. Detroit’s history has allowed communities to operate on home-rule, where communities can make decisions independently and even opt-out of a proposed bus service. Hardaway’s organization has been working to build leverage and influence public leaders to push for a comprehensive regional transit system and to take some risks.

In response to Hardaway’s point, Berube added that the establishment of a regional transit system is a crucial aspect of the labor market and part of the struggle has been to encourage jurisdictions to cooperate to extend services through other jurisdictions.  You can’t just have people move around in their own jurisdictions, Berube added.


Katz moderated the second panel, featuring U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan.

LaHood emphasized the importance of intercity connectivity. “Americans will rely on mass transit as gas prices go up,” he said. Using Detroit as an example, LaHood explained that in order to persuade people to come back to the city, it’s also important to improve housing and mass transit, using federal policy that supports both.

Donovan added that instead of referring to the moment as a transit one, we refer to it as a metro one. The dynamic between cities and suburbs have been reversed, he said. There is a fundamental recognition that if you do not have a strong metropolitan region, you will lose in the economic race. The trends went from people following capital and industry to industry following people. Now, individuals spend more than half of their income on transit and housing combined. If regions want to succeed, he concluded, they have to incorporate a successful metropolitan area and supplement it with affordable housing and strong transit.

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