The Problematic Equity Case for Mass Transit
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The Problematic Equity Case for Mass Transit

A large body of research suggests something quite different: access to private automobiles—not transit—is a powerful social equalizer.

Recently, a number of politicians and activists have raised the subject of highway construction’s historically disparate impact on African Americans and other minorities. The problem then and today is less about any particular type of project and more about the government’s expansive power to seize private property. But the misapprehension of the core problem by some politicians and activists has led them to propose ineffective transportation policy responses. One of the most popular proposals involves portraying mass transit as an important tool to enhance social equity, but a large body of research suggests something quite different: access to private automobiles—not transit—is a powerful social equalizer.

It is true that various levels of government have seized land owned by black Americans to build highways and that this was sometimes done to intentionally support segregationist policies, particularly in the South. It is also true that these actions were not limited to highways.

There is a long history of governments using eminent domain to take land for canals, railroads, mass transit, reservoirs, public housing, city parks, government offices, schools, sports stadia, and so on. The U.S. Supreme Court has blessed area blight condemnations for economic redevelopment purposes (Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26 (1954)) and has extended this authority to allow the government to seize land from one private owner to give to another if the forced transfer has the expected effect of increasing tax revenue and general economic activity (Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005)).

Even when racial discrimination was not the motivation, black property owners were more likely to be targeted because their land tended to be valued less. Because the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires the government to provide “just compensation” to private owners for property takings and this has been interpreted to mean fair market value, governments have a cost-minimizing incentive to condemn lower-valued land that is more likely to be owned or rented by lower-income people, who also have fewer resources to challenge government condemnations in court.

Like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), AARP, and others wrote in their 2004 Supreme Court amicus brief in Kelo, merely eliminating discriminatory intent from project selection, design, and construction does not eliminate the condemnation targets on the backs of racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and other politically weaker groups. As such, those wishing to avoid these inevitable disparate impacts on vulnerable populations from public works projects should seek to strengthen property rights for all Americans in order to reduce the government appetite for eminent domain condemnations.

Returning to surface transportation infrastructure, the Interstate Highway System was born in the second wave of suburbanization and rising automobile ownership that followed World War II. By the 1960s, mass transit ridership was in sharp decline and transit companies across the country were filing for bankruptcy, leading Congress to provide new funding for cities to take over these ailing transit systems. In most cities, mass transit ceased being an important middle-class transportation mode and transformed mainly into a mode of last resort for those too poor to afford cars.

The construction of urban Interstate segments was markedly different than what many had originally envisioned. The original plan from the Bureau of Public Roads would have encircled cities with expressway beltways so that traffic could bypass dense urban cores, coupled with more modest radial links to downtowns, and with much of the system built below or above grade to minimize land takings and quality of life impacts.

As Reason Foundation’s Robert W. Poole, Jr., documents in his book Rethinking America’s Highways, after an earlier proposal had been defeated in Congress, the Bureau of Public Roads issued a new proposal called the Yellow Book aimed at wooing skeptical urban representatives.

“The book’s effect on urban Congress members was profound,” writes Poole. “The lure of getting all of these projects, plus the new federal funding formula requiring only 10 percent of the project cost to come from the state highway department, as opposed to the traditional 50-50 federal-state matching requirement, changed the outcome for the Interstate bill when it was reintroduced in 1956. The bill passed almost unanimously.”

These federal decisions made at the behest of city officials in an effort to gain urban support for the Interstate system are what divided neighborhoods, concentrated noise and air pollution, and resulted in far more property condemnations than had been originally proposed.

“It is hardly surprising that ‘freeway revolts’ broke out in many urban areas in the 1960s, as various community groups decided that enough was enough and engaged in protests and litigation to stop a number of planned components of the freeway systems in many urban areas, leaving many with missing links that reduced their overall transportation value,” Poole concludes.

During this period, economist John Kain developed what came to be known as the spatial mismatch hypothesis. Kain and others suspected that advances in transportation technology and resulting changes in firm and household location choice affected labor markets in a way that particularly disadvantaged African Americans. Employment growth that increasingly clustered in auto-oriented suburbs was leaving behind black metropolitan area workers who continued to disproportionately reside in carless households located in central cities.

The magnitudes of both spatial mismatch generally and automobile access specifically on employment outcomes are still being debated, but the broad consensus is that spatial mismatch is real and that disparity in car access explains some of the disparities in labor market outcomes. Below are some notable studies on these questions:

  • Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll, ‘‘Can Boosting Minority Car-Ownership Rates Narrow Inter-Racial Employment Gaps?’’ Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs (2001): finding, among other things, the differences in the number of cars per adult household member account for 43% of the Black-White employment disparity and 19% of the Latino-White employment disparity.
  • Rucker C. Johnson, “Landing a Job in Urban Space: The Extent and Effects of Spatial Mismatch,” Regional Science and Urban Economics 36 (2006): “The results indicate that if blacks were given the car ownership rates of whites, the [successful job search completion] gap would be reduced by 8%.”
  • Charles L. Baum, “The effects of vehicle ownership on employment,” Journal of Urban Economics 66 (2009): “Evidence suggests that vehicles promote employment for single mothers with no more than a high school education. In some cases, the effects of vehicles are large: owning a vehicle often doubles the probability of employment and the number of hours worked, increasing the probability of employment by roughly 30 [percentage] points and work hours by about 13 per week.”
  • Evelyn Blumenberg and Gregory Pierce, “Car access and long-term poverty exposure: Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment,” Journal of Transport Geography 65 (2017): “Successfully [participating in the MTO program] has the largest poverty-reducing effect. However, as hypothesized, access to an automobile significantly reduces exposure to poverty by between three and 4%, and trails only successful [MTO program placement] in terms of policy-relevant factors that reduce the magnitude of exposure.”

Fortunately, as Commuting in America author Alan Pisarski highlighted in a recent piece for Reason Foundation, auto ownership rates have been converging between racial groups. In 1970, the percent of all households with zero vehicles available stood at 17.5%, but 43.1% of African-American households lacked access to a car—a gap of 25.6%. By 2018, that had fallen to 8.5% and 18.1%, respectively—a gap of 9.6%. If household access to automobiles continues to rise and this gap continues to narrow, the expectation is that spatial mismatch’s importance in labor market outcomes will similarly decline.

For those relatively few Americans who continue to rely on mass transit, transit system performance in connecting people with places leaves much to be desired. The University of Minnesota’s Access Across America series shows that in 2019, those residing in the 50 largest U.S. metro areas could on average access 47% of metro area jobs by car in 30 minutes of travel (or one hour of bidirectional daily commuting).

In contrast, just 8% of jobs were accessible by transit in 60 minutes (or two hours of bidirectional daily commuting). Even in the New York City metro area, by far the most transit-oriented American metro area, and where more than 40% of total U.S. transit trips take place, drivers can access 13% of New York metro area jobs in 30 minutes versus just 14% of jobs in 60 minutes by transit.

New York City, and especially Manhattan, offers the lowest penalty for zero-vehicle households. The city contains 15% of America’s zero-vehicle households despite accounting for just 3% of the national population. Some urban planners and mass transit advocates suggest the goal should be recreating the Manhattan-style built environment in as many places as possible. But even assuming this is a worthy goal, it fails to address the aforementioned disparities that exist today.

As urban planners David A. King, Michael J. Smart, and Michael Manville concluded in a 2019 article in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, “This goal, however, while undeniably important, is also indisputably long-term, and pursuing it offers little help to transportation-poor households today. For this reason, the long-range goal of helping most non-poor Americans drive less needs to be paired with a shorter range goal of helping some poorer Americans drive more.”

When the pandemic struck and people understandably feared sharing crowded spaces with strangers, mass transit ridership collapsed by 95% at its worst. By the end of 2020, transit ridership remained approximately two-thirds below its pre-pandemic level. Transit may never recover to pre-pandemic travel volumes, but bus transit that tends to serve lower-income people has rebounded much more than rail transit, which increasingly serves affluent professionals in central business districts who are likely to continue working at home in large numbers. Policymakers should prepare for likely post-pandemic changes in the transit landscape.

As transit researcher Steven E. Polzin warned in a recent report for Reason Foundation, “If work-at-home doubles from a pre-COVID-19 level of 5.7% (this includes those who are employed and work at home as well as those that have home-based businesses) to 12%, it could mean a 15%-20% decline in central business worker numbers.”

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened transit’s already negative outlook, where transit’s pre-pandemic national market share stood at only 2.6 percent of total person trips and 5 percent of commuting trips. Contrary to the rhetoric from transit advocates that transit has been chronically underfunded, transit was already receiving nearly 30 percent of total federal, state, and local spending on highways and transit, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

As economists Gilles Duranton, Geetika Nagpal, and Matthew Turner wrote in a 2020 working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “The allocation of expenditure across modes of transportation requires scrutiny. That we spend about the same amount on public transit buses, which provide about 2 billion rides per year, as on the interstate highway system, which provides about 700 billion miles of vehicle travel per year, primarily for local travel, is a central and surprising feature of US transportation policy.”

As a transportation technology, motorized transit offered higher speeds, greater accessibility, and more comfort when compared to walking or travel by horse. When transit was introduced, it drove the first wave of suburbanization in the early 20th century, creating what are still called streetcar suburbs. But other than a small number of locations in 21st century America, transit will continue to perform much worse than faster, more flexible, and more comfortable automobiles. Those places where transit makes the most sense would benefit from better transit policy.

Reason Foundation’s Baruch Feigenbaum recently made several recommendations to improve transit policy in testimony to the U.S. Senate Banking Committee:

  1. Prioritize service for transit-dependent riders;
  2. Prioritize maintenance and operations over expansion;
  3. Adjust quantitative metrics in project evaluation;
  4. Make all forms of bus rapid transit (BRT) eligible under the Capital Investment Grants program;
  5. Fund transit from the general fund; and
  6. Unlock the private market and transit innovation.

Concerns about past and future property takings for highways and other public works projects—and the disparate impacts they impose on African Americans and other politically disadvantaged groups—are legitimate and policymakers should seek to curb eminent domain abuses by enhancing private property rights.

In addition, there is growing interest in mitigating the negative effects of urban expressways on adjacent residential neighborhoods, where the most ambitious responses include rebuilding highways below grade and covering with a deck, or removing “stubs” of incomplete highway routes to reconnect the surface street grid. These proposals will need to balance a variety of trade-offs, including that eliminating a disamenity may increase property values and potentially price out current low-income renters. But attempting to push unpopular alternatives to motor vehicle travel as a solution not only misapprehends the problem, it ignores harmful disparities that arise from the lack of access to automobiles.

To be sure, mass transit is critically important to transit-dependent people. But this tautology should not distract us from the fact that accessibility by automobile far exceeds transit accessibility. Policymakers should contemplate the likelihood that policies perpetuating transit dependence may also perpetuate unemployment and poverty, particularly among racial minorities who still experience reduced automobile access and resulting benefits relative to white Americans. Policymakers should investigate future technologies and new policies that can extend the benefits of automobility to those who lack access to automobiles, including automated vehicles and mode-neutral transportation vouchers.