Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Streetsblog USA home
Log In
15 Minute Cities

New Bill Would Help Measure Transportation Access for Non-Drivers

A new bill would give U.S. communities money to analyze how easy — or difficult — it is for residents to access the destinations they need most, and how their mode of transportation, race, income, age, disability, and other factors that affect their basic mobility.

The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) and named the Connecting Opportunities through Mobility Metrics and Unlocking Transportation Efficiencies (COMMUTE) Act, advocates for the establishment of a pilot program that would “provide data to states and local governments to measure accessibility to local businesses and important destinations, and inform investments in transportation systems.”

That might sound like something communities should already be doing, but they’re  not. Developers and departments of transportation often are legally required to conduct traffic-impact analyses that estimate “level of service” for drivers before they build roads, buildings, and other developments, but those studies almost never estimate the effects on people without cars — and they almost never disaggregate their data to understand which groups will benefit or suffer because of their leaders' choices.

Image: Transportation for America

In fact, cities and states are too often in the dark when it comes to understanding the mobility barriers facing residents. Few U.S. cities bother to analyze pedestrian and bike volumes on their roads or to study how those behaviors might change during, say, a global pandemic. Data on how people of color and other marginalized groups get around are only collected nationally every six years as part of the National Household Travel Survey, which asks about trips in broad terms, such as “to/from work,” for “shopping,” and “other personal/family errands."

The failure to do a more granular analysis has real-world consequences for U.S. families. According to the National Equity Atlas, Black workers have 12 percent longer commute times than their White counterparts across all modes — and statisticians don’t even know how long it takes the average BIPOC to reach essential services. Experts do know, for example, that Black Americans are 2.49 times more likely to live in a neighborhood without a full-service grocery store, and three times less likely to have access to a personal vehicle, but not how long it actually takes them to make a household food run on average — which might vary a lot if there’s a highway between home and the shopping center, instead of a direct-access bus route.

Advocates are hopeful that the bill could help communities answer such fundamental questions — and give cities a map of where they need to improve access.

"The COMMUTE Act is about reorienting our federal transportation program around what counts: getting people where they need to go," said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America. "Sens. Baldwin and Ernst continue to be leaders in elevating the importance of measuring whether the transportation system connects people to jobs and essential services, not just how quickly vehicles move as we do today. I'm grateful to both senators for their continued bipartisan leadership on this issue."

The COMMUTE Act won’t give transportation leaders all the tools they need to improve access for the most marginalized — and it won’t hold those leaders accountable for what they do with the new data. The text of the bill doesn’t specify the size of the pilot program, the amount of money that will fund it, or how many communities can participate (although, notably, it does include small, rural cities and entire states as eligible participants.)  It also doesn’t obligate leaders to prioritize transportation projects that make it easier for non-drivers and other under-served groups to get around, as do states such as Virginia.

Still, the bill could be an important step toward removing outdated metrics like “level of service” from our transportation vocabulary — and toward getting DOTs to measure and treasure statistics that truly reflect how all their constituents get around.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

Wednesday’s Headlines Are in a Good Place

How should we react to public indifference about the danger cars pose to society? Perhaps a sitcom has something to teach us.

July 24, 2024

Opinion: Is Kamala Harris ‘The Climate President We’ve Been Waiting For’?

Kamala Harris fought hard for a better transportation plan in the San Diego region despite big political risks. If elected president, will she do the same for the country?

July 24, 2024

America is Setting Micromobility Records — But That Boom Could Go Bust Without Public Funding

Shared bike and scooter trips soared 20 percent in a single year. So why are so many U.S. systems shutting down — and what will it take to keep the revolution rolling?

July 24, 2024

Get on the bus! Advocates Urge Mayor Johnson to Save Chicago Greyhound Terminal

According to the letter, rehabbing the station would cost less that $40M, a small fraction of the price tag of many other local transportation projects.

July 23, 2024

Tuesday’s Headlines Are Running Hard

More political news: Today's top stories delve into Kamala Harris' record on climate change and Republicans' plans for the Trump administration if he returns to power.

July 23, 2024
See all posts