Brookings: 700,000 Carless Americans Stranded Outside Reach of Transit

There are almost of them 38,000 in Atlanta. Another 65,000 between Dallas and Houston. Nearly 18,000 in Phoenix.

Across the United States, about 700,000 households not only lack access to a vehicle, but live in areas that are not served by transit, according to “Transit Access and Zero-Vehicle Households,” a new report from the Brookings Institution.

These guys are the lucky ones. About 700,000 people in the 100 largest U.S. metros not only don't have cars, but don't have access to transit. Photo: Angie Schmitt

This isolated population represents about 10 percent of the 7.5 million carless households in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. Beyond issues of social justice, these households’ predicament presents a great economic concern for the country, say Brookings researchers.

“Seven hundred thousand households is larger than the population of Columbus, Ohio or San Antonio, Texas,” said Adie Tomer, senior research analyst and author of the report. “These people are terribly constrained in earning a living, getting to the store, or taking their kids to daycare. If this many people were facing a public health scare, this country would be in crisis mode. We need to approach this problem with similar urgency.”

The most vulnerable carless families, by and large, were those that live in the suburbs or the Southwest, according to the report. Cities with the highest number of families lacking access to transit and private automobiles included Atlanta, with just 69 percent transit coverage, Dallas (71 percent), Houston (73 percent), Phoenix (81 percent) and St. Louis (82 percent).

On the other hand, some of the biggest overall transit cities also do the best job making sure nearly every resident has access to service. Los Angeles’ transit services reach more than 99 percent percent of the regional population, just ahead of New York (99 percent), San Francisco (98 percent), Seattle (97 percent) and Miami (97 percent).

Report authors point to trends like job sprawl and the increased suburbanization of poverty as aggravating factors that put carless families at economic risk. Since the 1980s, the U.S. has built 655,000 roadway lane miles; this had the effect of increasing the distance between destinations, the report noted.

Brookings researchers urged both local and national leaders to respond to this crisis through land use policies that encourage development in densely populated areas and expanding transit service into under-served suburban communities.

  • Guest

    This isolated population represents about 10 percent of the 7.5 million carless households in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

    Yes, but according to the report, only 10% of households in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas do not have access to a private vehicle.  So households that lack acces to both a private vehicle and transit are only 10% of 10% of the total.  That is, 1% of total households.

    It’s just not a big problem.

  • Bolwerk

    I really don’t see this as a crisis. The cheapest and most pro-social response to this would be help such families move to transit-friendly, preferably also walkable, areas if they choose. There is no reason to waste scarce transit dollars on serving the least transit-friendly areas of town; scarcely used periphery buses are probably as wasteful and environmentally unfriendly as cars, and have the added cost of needing to be publicly maintained for the sake of very few people.

    The real crisis is the trouble we’re having increasing the number of carless Americans.

  • Finally, a note about the transit agencies included in this analysis. The model requires speci?c service times to measure access between origins and destinations—meaning only ?xed route transit meets this criterion. In turn, this requirement excludes alternative transit, such as on-demand service and private jitneys, from the analysis. Innovative carpooling programs, like slugging, are also excluded. There is no question that these travel modes offer a viable alternative to ?xed route transit and private automobiles—and statistics show that people do use the services. Future analyses could measure the additional accessibility bene?ts these services offer to zero-vehicle households.

    So even if some of these families have a “viable alternative,” Tomer still won’t count them because… because… they’re too hard to count? And if those “fixed-route transit” lines run only once in the morning and once in the evening, leaving you stranded if you need to take a kid to the doctor in the middle of the day, they count 100%. 

    Seems to me that this analysis isn’t really the kind of thing you’d want to base policy recommendations on.

  • Anonymous

    Bolwerk’s comment: “The real crisis is the trouble we’re having increasing the number of carless Americans.” is odd. The price of fuel is increasing. The supply of crude oil is decreasing. The population of the world in increasing. The result: more carless people, everywhere. If you lose your job, you can’t afford to pay for fuel, maintenance, insurance, or even parking and fines. It would be cheaper to get rid of that car, and take transit. However, if transit is not available, they (and we) will all get into more trouble.

  • Bolwerk

    @wklis: and the people not driving is, as yet, hardly budging. I generally agree with what you’re saying, but I think it’s critical to address land use if you’re going to expand transit to new places.  Transit doesn’t exactly work well when there is hardly anyone around to take it.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with Bolwerk that some areas are simply ill-suited for transit, and there’s not a lot we can do to change it. I’ve lived in places which had six-times-a-day bus service, and it was probably a big money pit even at the anemic levels it was provided. If people who are carless live there, I doubt it’s by choice. Our goal should be making sure that there is decent, reasonably-priced housing in places where there is already transit. I can personally point out a number of places, currently empty lots, where there could be hundreds of apartments with excellent access to transit, but which are blocked because neighbors object to it– often because they feel that there would not be enough parking(!) if they were built. This is what we should work on. The beauty of this solution is that instead of requiring more funding to expand transit, it actually requires less, because paid fares increase while the costs of operation remain level.

    I disagree with Guest: if there are 750,000 households with no good transportation access, that’s a real problem.

  • I’m with baklazhan.  By servicing areas that don’t have high ridership, you also add voters who think that transit is a waste of tax dollars, so you’ll have a harder time passing ballot measures to increase service or invest in high quality options like rail and BRT.  In Washington State, the only revenue source for local transit is sales tax dollars.  Adding more suburban residential subdivisions doesn’t add any new revenue, but it adds a lot of people who will never vote for transit, never ride transit, and will never pay money into the system.


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