Multimodal transportation and income equity fit hand-in-glove

By Beth Osborne

One recent study finds that cities offering diverse transportation options have the lowest income inequality, while another study finds that transit systems may begin to struggle as lower income families are pushed away from the city center. These works demonstrate that preserving access to multimodal options for disadvantaged populations is essential for cities’ economies, the viability of their transportation systems, and the wellbeing of families.

A recent report by Chad Frederick and John Gilderbloom with the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods at the University of Louisville challenges the notion that increasing automobile ownership is an effective way to address urban poverty and inequality. The report finds, instead, that more multimodal choices are linked to lower income inequality between white and African-American households and to overall positive economic gains for cities.

The report focuses on mid-sized cities (those over 50,000) and considers development density, housing costs, housing cost burden, and income inequality. It finds that commute mode diversity is associated with higher earnings for white women and African-American men as well as higher home property values and more affordable rental markets.

The report found that home values and rents were generally higher in multimodal cities, but fewer people were cost-burdened or spent more than 30 percent of household income on housing because workers earned more. However, those benefits did not extend to African-American women. The report concludes that the structural segregation of black women from the larger economy may be too large to be overcome by multimodal transportation investments and policies.

At the same time in a recent guest post for Transit Center, Tom Mills and Madeline Steele of Portland’s transit agency TriMet examine the recent drop in transit ridership. They suggest that one of the reasons for the recent drop in transit ridership in Portland is the economic displacement of low-income earners from inner city neighborhoods to first ring suburbs. Lower-income residents use transit regularly to get to work, grocery stores and other necessities. But higher-income residents, while wanting to live close to transit tend not to use it as frequently.

As low-income earners are pushed out of the city, they become concentrated in, “suburban developments with a dispersed street network, low population densities, single-use land development and a lack of pedestrian infrastructure,” according to the authors, “all factors that discourage bus ridership.”

Beth Osborne is Senior Policy Advisor for SSTI.