Transportation More Important than Schools, Crime, in Escaping Poverty

Access to transit should be considered a strong factor when encouraging people to move for opportunity.

several people side on a train. These transit riders highlight mobility to work.The New York Times recently reported on a finding from the large social mobility study out of Harvard that found that access to good, reliable transportation is a huge factor in determining economic mobility. To wit, “commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty” and: The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community, said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the researchers on the study. If you combine this with reports like this one from Minneapolis on the racial transit divide you get a good understanding of why segregation affects economic mobility:

“The study found that Asian, Black, and Latino [workers] who commuted to work on the bus or train spent 11 to 46 hours more a year to get where they were going than white public transit riders.”

To at least one person I know who has watched his fortunes rise and fall with his ability to maintain a functional vehicle without predatory loan prices, the Harvard conclusions about the importance of reliable transit falls into the category of “duh” research (as in “study finds not having enough food to eat makes you hungry a lot” or “poverty is bad for your health.” These are, sadly, important kinds of studies to do because they are required to back up sound policy in the face of ideological irrationality, but nonetheless they sometimes seem like very expensive common sense).

I didn’t personally find this one to be quite so intuitively obvious, however, though it makes sense to me. In fact I think it might be counter-intuitive to many that transportation comes out as the strongest factor.

There has been a lot more attention on discussing implications from that social mobility study on housing mobility programs like Moving to Opportunity—and generally the assumption seems to be that the higher opportunity neighborhoods moved to are better because of less crime and better schools.

But it sounds like we should give reliable access to jobs (and other crucial things like medical care) at least a much weight. And that would seriously affect what we prioritize in the fight against poverty.*

For example, it’s a super strong argument for the kind of work Urban Land Conservancy has been doing in Denver, proactively securing land or buildings around upcoming transit stops and constructing or rehabbing permanently affordable housing there. ULC has been tracking its economic impact in terms of direct and indirect jobs created and tax revenue raised, but now perhaps to those impressive numbers they can add “and according to Harvard, dramatically increasing the odds of lifting our residents out of poverty by giving them close access to reliable transportation.”

That’s always been one of the theories around affordable “transit-oriented development,” but having the weight of Harvard behind it should give it even more urgency.

It also means that access to transit should be considered a strong factor when encouraging people to move for opportunity. It seems that if exiting poverty is a goal, then moving someone who can’t stably afford a personal vehicle yet out beyond the reach of reliable public transportation might not be the best choice, even if it has a nominally better school system than a different option.

And then there are cars. It’s can be a difficult thing in an age of climate change and knowledge that as a society we really must reduce our reliance on personal vehicles to advocate for increased access to cars. At least for me, it’s much easier to advocate for more and more equitable transit and more affordable housing near transit. But saying that the poor need more access to cars is in fact also a not-new argument only strengthened by this new research.

Really, as long as we live with a built environment and transit infrastructure that make it very hard to forego personal vehicles, if someone should be asked to do without a car, it should be the people who can afford to live near their high paying jobs; who can pay for periodic taxis and grocery delivery; who have regular, predictable work hours that make them a good candidate for transit commuting even in a system that isn’t 24-7; and who aren’t trying to juggle caretaking for multiple people with going back to school and a multiple-site job.

Barring that little fantasy, however, keeping accessible, affordable transportation top of mind when designing policies and programs for those for whom it can be make or break seems like a top priority.

* Personally, the “social mobility” frame doesn’t do much for me, because as long as it’s framed as people moving up and down in social or financial relation to each other it doesn’t say anything about the whole pie, about whether fewer people total are living in poverty, though certainly the fact that people are generally stuck where they started due to outside forces is important.

(Photo credit: John Walker, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

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