Responding to the Transport Needs of the Impoverished Suburbs

» How will automobile-dependent suburbs handle an influx of the poor?

A new Brookings Institution report by Elizabeth Kneebone and Emily Garr puts in dramatic clarity the rise of suburban poverty in the United States. Not only do a plurality of impoverished Americans now live in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas — 1.5 million more than in their respective central cities — but in many regions, central city poverty fell in the period between 2000 and 2008, even as it rose in the surrounding suburbs.

In the time period studied, 5.2 million more individuals descended into poverty, which in 2008 included 13.2% of the population — before the most recent recession and its devastating economic effects.

In most regions described by the study, which documented changes in the nation’s 95 largest metropolitan areas, poverty rates in suburbs and central cities mirrored one another — and overall growth statistics roughly replicated trends we’ve been seeing for years. Central city poverty rates were nearly twice as high as those in the suburbs, 18.2% versus 9.5%. Meanwhile, suburbs grew by 12.5% overall, compared to urban cores, which grew only by 3.9%. The nation suffers from growing economic inequality: more than 30% of the population fell below 200% of the poverty line by 2008. The situation has undoubtedly grown worse over the past year.

But poverty is clearly shifting outwards: the number of people living in poverty grew by 25% overall in the suburbs, compared to only 5.6% in central cities. In eighteen of the 95 metropolitan areas studied, inner-city poverty decreased or remained the same even as suburban poverty increased or remained the same. This was true of Northeast U.S. regions as a whole. The old assumptions about American cities being home to the poor and their suburbs housing the wealthy are quickly falling by the wayside.

I wrote about Paris’ investment in its suburban transit capacity on Tuesday to show how regional officials have prioritized improving public transportation in areas outside of the inner city. The French example — spurred by abundant transit within the city of Paris but insufficient services virtually everywhere else in the Île-de-France region, despite high densities and elevated social needs — may be increasingly relevant for the U.S.

I mentioned Boston, San Francisco, and Washington as three places that could benefit from expanded investments across the suburbs, and indeed, all three feature decreasing poverty rates in the urban core and increasing rates in the suburbs, as noted in the table below. Each has an old, relatively small central city and a focused transit system, fast-regenerating urban cores, in addition to a number of built-up, somewhat dense suburbs. (Note, however, that “suburbs” like Cambridge, Oakland, and Arlington are considered “central cities” by the Brookings report.) The same could be said for Baltimore, New York, Providence, and St. Louis, each of which are experiencing similar trends.

In these regions, the socio-spatial geography of a gentrifying core with less-wealthy surroundings stereotyped by Paris is coming closer to reality — though of course there is still plenty of poverty in American inner-cities. Thus far, few metropolitan areas have responded adequately to the transportation concerns that will progressively manifest themselves; while central-city-oriented transit networks are promoted vigorously, the concerns of suburbs are sidelined (including by this site). This condition seems unlikely to improve, with few metropolitan areas actually planning as a region, unlike Paris, where transportation planning and financing is conducted from the regional level.

There are major differences between the U.S. and France: American suburbs are incredibly sprawled-out, which means that high-quality, high-capacity transit would be both inefficient and inappropriate in most places. Indeed, U.S. poverty can increasingly be defined as a car-dependent one — which means that expecting to address transportation needs of the least well-off in the suburbs through better public transportation will be a failure in the short-term. This also means, unfortunately, that policies that increase costs of driving will fall directly on a large number of the working poor.

The development of a more equitable and sustainable transportation system demands an intense effort to densify and pedestrianize the same suburbs that are rapidly becoming economically diverse. We cannot continue allowing — and often subsidizing — people to live in isolated cul-de-sac neighborhoods completely inaccessible to anything by anything but a private automobiles. We must construct new town centers in suburban communities with essential services and mixed-income housing accessible via transit to urban cores. The current trends, enforced by local, state, and national planning decisions, are producing a lower class that spends far too much on private transportation.

It’s a reckless course barreling straight towards increasing inequality.

Metropolitan Areas where Center City Poverty Decreased while Suburban Poverty Increased between 2000 and 2008 (table is sortable)
Metro Area% Change in Central City Poverty% Change in Suburban Poverty# People in Central City Poverty# People in Suburban PovertyCentral City Poverty Rate 2008Suburban Poverty Rate 2008
Atlanta-2.02.79548451952122.410.7
Bakersfield-1.21.75328610503016.724.2
Baltimore-3.60.711934012115019.36.1
Boston-0.60.912007328146718.07.6
Jacksonville-0.30.6948064251511.98.6
Lakeland-1.73.2121827507513.315.8
New York-3.00.0156650673021218.57.2
Providence-3.80.94057013963325.410.1
Sacramento-3.20.18089816670214.311.1
Salt Lake City-0.11.1263146658014.37.3
San Diego-0.20.617688518991414.411.3
San Francisco-0.80.916246923344912.08.2
Seattle0.01.210283820336311.98.4
St. Louis-1.71.77916323057022.99.6
Stockton-2.30.4585535199621.613.4
St. Petersburg-0.12.110257923489115.311.7
Virginia Beach-0.40.0895617585111.19.6
Washington-2.50.312066925109613.35.8
Note: Poverty levels are defined by the U.S. government and equal $21,834 or less annually for a four-person family in 2008 dollars. Chart based on data from the Brookings Institution.
21 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • First, you’re absolutely right that there’s a need to make increasingly poor suburbs less car-dependent.

    However, there’s a real danger that transit planners will decide the solution is to keep building urban rail deep into suburbia, on the model of BART or the LA Metrorail. Such construction rarely benefits the poor, who may not want to go to the CBD, which is the only place such systems can get people to; in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the poor mostly take the bus. Not surprisingly, because suburb-centric systems like BART are geared toward people who commute to the CBD but drive to all other destinations, they both underperform and perpetuate social injustice.

    • Thad

      Poor people will take whatever mode of transit available to get wherever they have a job. You can’t say that just because they’re poor and living in the suburbs means they don’t have to commute downtown. Alot of the people riding the bus in L.A. are riding the bus to places they can’t get to by train like the Westside and areas of the South Bay. If there was more rail coverage, they would ride. BART is more of a rapid commuter rail than a local service by design, seeing how Muni and the various county transit authorities handle local service in San Fransisco and the Bay Area suburbs.

  • david vartanoff

    Depends, here in the Bay Area exactly how you define suburbs. Oakland clearly has serious poverty–is it a suburb or more realistically a Brooklyn to SF as Manhattan? How about Albany, El Cerrito? These areas have both more expensive housing, and (by Bay Area standards) moderate rentals. A visit to this graphic shows that BART gathers riders despite discriminatory pricing in these “burbs.”

  • Transportation issues and re-forming cities also need to include discussions on zoning and mixed use. We could have tiny houses that would be less expensive to build and maintain-as well as more sustainable. BUT cities require a minimum square footage that will not allow these innovative solutions.

  • J

    What exactly is the central city in Bakersfield…??? Old downtown? Nobody lives there…..99% of the city is a suburb.

    • Nathanael

      That’s a fairly dramatic example, isn’t it?

      For Bakersfield, the central city is Los Angeles. Bakersfield is one giant suburb, and very very poor.

      (Though yeah, the tiny old downtown Bakersfield is apparently the richest place in town.)

  • Erik H.

    It’s a reckless course barreling straight towards increasing inequality.

    It’s already here in Portland.

    While Portland builds the expensive Streetcar system that favors wealthy developers (who are further rewarded with tax-breaks, and its often more affluent ridership given fareless rides) those in the suburbs – whether it’s Troutdale, Forest Grove, Oregon City or Sherwood – are treated to old, 20 year old buses lacking air conditioning and level floor boarding, inconsistent service, less service hours, and more expensive rides.

    The 76 bus between Beaverton and Tualatin is a perfect example; as compared to the “choice” WES train that serves affluent Wilsonville residents/Beaverton workers; the 76 stops at all the service industry jobs – fast food joints, the Washington Square mall, and every apartment complex up and down Hall Boulevard. The 76 bus is guaranteed to be busy whether it’s Sunday night or 3:00 PM on a Tuesday. Yet – until very recently it was guaranteed one of TriMet’s oldest buses, while WES gives its riders air conditioned comfort, free wireless internet access, oversized station platforms with benches and plasma TVs for train arrivals, “art”, free parking with bike shelters, and plush seats on the train. Further, WES ticket vending machines don’t accept cash – you must have a pass or pay with a credit or debit card; while the bus only accepts cash.

    TriMet has no qualm about decreasing suburban bus service, while creating a plural transit system in the core – MAX is planned to be extended to the very wealthy South Waterfront District (which is already served by the Streetcar); MAX and Streetcar already are in close proximity in the PSU and Museum Districts, and the Pearl is criss-crossed by the Streetcar and the 15-NW 23rd Street bus, one of the few bus services that serves some very nice neighborhoods (and runs well past most other bus services, and was one of the first to get the low-floor buses.)

    The suburbs are here to stay; no one is going to buy up suburban tracts en mass, demolish the homes and return the land to its natural state. Many who live in the suburbs simply cannot afford an 800 square foot downtown high-rise condo that costs twice as much as a 1500 square foot ranch home or row house in the ‘burbs.

  • Wad

    Alon, there’s another aspect to your comment about the poor not benefitting from train lines. It’s an overgeneralization to say that the poor have no business on train lines because they’re not going to work in the central business district.

    If there isn’t a barrier, the poor will use the rail services at the same rate as the buses. By barrier, I mean a physical one such as deliberately omitting stations in low-income areas, a pricing one that would make fares unaffordable or a service span one that makes frequencies or operational hours unusable to transit-dependent riders.

    BART and L.A.’s Metro don’t have that problem. In L.A., Metro rail has the same fares and high service levels as local bus services. BART has stations built in inner-city areas, has high frequencies, and the fare regime is set up so that intra-county rides cost the same as a local bus fare. (Consequently, it creates absurdities such as the West Oakland-Embaracadero and Daly City-Balboa Park trips that cost at least a dollar more than bus fare just to travel a single train stop — all because the trips cross county lines).

    The problem is not an equity/social justice issue.

    There is a problem that manifested itself in both areas that nobody had really counted on: a “flight to quality”.

    Metro Rail and BART provide a quality of service that no bus system could ever hope to achieve. The trains can move more people, more cheaply per passenger mile, and at a higher reliability than buses. This also was accomplished without forcing people on the trains (parallel bus service still exists for people who wish to avoid rail).

    Poor bus riders will take notice of this and shift their trips accordingly.

    Problem is, a person can only be on a single vehicle at any given time.

    A trip shifted to rail means a trip shifted off a bus.

    This isn’t so much a problem in San Francisco or L.A. where the Blue and Red lines run. Bus service is so frequent that rail acts as a pressure valve and it doesn’t cannibalize bus operating hours.

    In Oakland, or worse, in the suburbs served by SamTrans or the fragmented Contra Costa County bus zones, the flight to quality becomes evident. These areas don’t have high-frequency services, and passengers are already orienting their trips to include the train, so the buses will never see attractive bus services.

    In L.A., the flight-to-quality problem manifests itself on the Green Line, which has noticeably killed bus service in the South Bay and Southeast L.A. County. As horribly designed and conceived as the Green Line is (the only reason it exists is because of a consent decree that mandated a transit improvement in order to get the Century Freeway built), it gets ridership it should not be getting. Unfortunately, the ridership it does get came from bus trips, and the areas south of the Century Freeway saw many bus services wither and die.

  • Wad, BART kind of does have this access problem. It’s not laid out in such a way that it’s useful as an intra-Oakland subway; it’s only marginally useful as an intra-SF subway. It also heavily emphasizes park and rides, which assumes riders own a car, while neglecting the connecting buses.

    In addition, while some poor people work in the CBD, a higher percentage of rich people do, because the CBD is where all the big finance and corporate jobs go. The poor are likelier to work in service-oriented areas, such as shopping centers, which BART-style monocentric rail in the US often bypasses. The LA Metrorail is trying to alleviate this problem by building the Wilshire subway, but it’s trying even harder to keep serving rich exurbs by extending the Gold Line to the Foothills.

  • American suburbs are incredibly sprawled-out, which means that high-quality, high-capacity transit would be both inefficient and inappropriate in most places. Indeed, U.S. poverty can increasingly be defined as a car-dependent one — which means that expecting to address transportation needs of the least well-off in the suburbs through better public transportation will be a failure in the short-term.

    I’m inclined to agree, but only insofar as such transit links suburbs with other suburbs. Most working Americans (an estimated 40.8 percent of them) commute between suburbs. If workplaces in suburbs were more centralized, transit investments there to accommodate the suburban poor might make sense. This, however, is not the case. Transit starts becoming a better option in suburbs with both a high proportion of poor or near-poor and a high proportion of inner-city workers.

    I think you are entirely correct though that policies must be pursued that encourage increased residential density and town centers in suburban areas. This should be done for the sake not just of poor people, but for the sake of all. Who among us doesn’t mind saving a buck on transportation, especially in this day and age?

  • david vartanoff

    A few corrections about BART and the local buses. First BART fares in the East Bay DO discriminate against local riders. Berkeley to Bayfair/San Leandro, AC $2.00/BART$3.05, but Bayfair out to Dublin (similar mileage no bus service and few riders) BART $1.75. As to forcing riders onto trains, pre BART AC ran numerous express services. These withered both because of BART competition AND falling funding. AC’s Transbay ridership OTOH is growing as a premium service w/wi-fi in over the road coaches.
    As to ridership, the BART SF stats show that weekends Powell Street stands out as the busy station–retail both workers and buyers.

    BART is heavily used as intra SF transit particularly because up until Jan 1, a Muni Fastpass was good for unlimited BART usage within the city. Huge ridership to Balboa Park, then transfer to bus/LRV routes “the last mile”.

    • Ted King

      Case in point :
      Geneva + Mission to SFPL’s Main Library (Eighth + Market)

      via SFMuni (four lines*) and BART (two or more lines)
      15 – 30 minutes, exit Civic Center Stn. and cross the street(s)
      Note – 20 mins. typically, add three mins. for each added S.F. stn. (e.g. Powell is 18 – 33 mins.)

      via SFMuni’s #14L (Mission Limited)**
      35 – 50 minutes, debark at Eighth + Mission, walk one block north to Market St. + cross over
      Note – 40 mins. typically, the #14L is a stop skipper until Fifth + Mission

      Directions to SFPL’s Main Library
      (Above link omits the F-Market Historical Streetcar line.)
      SFMuni’s Route Desc. #14L

      *#8X, #43, #54 – Board on Geneva Ave., NE corner, at shelter
      #29 – Board on Geneva Ave., NW corner, at sign
      **#14L – Board on Mission St., NE corner, at shelter
      WARNING – That stop also has #14 (slow boat to Inner Mission and Downtown), #14X (commuter express) and #29 (cross-town peripheral)

      P.S. Yes, I know the library is at 100 Larkin St. That’s the City Hall Plaza entrance. I usually use the Burger King entrance near Hyde + Grove and across from Eighth + Market. Besides, the numbered streets are easier to find on a map – paper or electronic.

  • DBX

    As government in the US becomes weaker and economic conditions sharper, we’ll follow the spatial trends of major cities in other countries that haven’t had the resources to build huge freeway systems or extend sewage lines to homes on two-acre lots. There will be densification and growth in central cities, and rapidly spreading poverty in the banlieue, er, suburbia. Already, in greater Chicago, there are more poor people in the suburbs than there are in what the Census Bureau defines as the combined total from central cities –Chicago, Naperville and Joliet. Chicago, and for that matter Naperville, can at least drum up the resources to take care of problems in their midst. A good many of the suburbs cannot. You already see it in the south suburbs on a large scale. That’s where you find all the problem tenants the Chicago Housing Authority got rid of. CHA skimmed off the ones who pay their rent on time and get positively involved in their communities and decanted the mentally-ill and the drug-addicted off to the suburbs.

    Paris’s transit extensions in the suburbs, even though much more efficiently applied than here, are still taking place on a massive and extensive scale requiring a lot of support from central as well as local and regional government. Compared to the French state, however, state and federal governments in the US are broke, dysfunctional, bought by special interests and flee at the slightest hint of redistribution of wealth. And the central cities don’t have to deal with this problem because it’s not within their limits.

  • Norman Brown

    I don’t know why we have to say that the suburbs are here to say. Brooklyn and Queens used to be suburbs. Metropolitanization is one of those things that must not be spoken about like verbal Kryptonite. Good transportation and land use decisions simply cannot be made in the haphazard, balkanized structure the suburbs have committed to. The burbs are choking on property taxes and continue to ring their center cities harvesting real estate values. Meanwhile, genuine agricultural land for table vegetables gets pushed all the way to Guatemala (I wish I was exaggerating). It is all about density and land use patterns being made on a larger scale that benefits the whole in place of little autonomous fiefdoms. Carving out Mass Transit and DoT planning to have a regional base while allowing people to build their own little cultures with wide lawns and narrow minds is big part of what is wrong with this picture.
    Some metropolitan areas, like Boston, are enormous and the center cities are really very small parts. Its really the chaos of production. The hordes of poor people (usually immigrants) hanging around the Home Depots are a symptom of an organizational disease.

  • calwatch

    A lot of suburbs have decent transit, particularly the older, pre-1980 second and third ring suburbs that the poor and working class are likely to be living in. The newly poor, who lost their job but are stuck holding the bag on a 2,000 square foot house miles away from shopping and job opportunities, are going to be the ones holding the bag, but there’s not much you can do about that.

    When Yonah talks about recentralizing suburban housing, he fails to consider the other part of the equation, the jobs that these working class people go to, which often cannot be well centralized. The spatial mismatch between public transit and low-density warehousing and manufacturing facilities means that transit through industrial parks and factory districts is likely a loser. Newer factories are built much further away from each other than in the past, and have much more parking than the old auto plants and meat-packing facilities of the last century. Low income workers are less likely to be working in a multi-story office building than they are driving a fork lift or ringing up a cash register at a big box store in a strip mall. So they now can live in dense environments close to transit, but now have to walk a long distance from the bus stop because the distribution center they work at is on dozens of acres, surrounded of course by tons of parking.

  • Great article, Yonah.

    If you really want to understand this issue, you have to watch the original 1987 music video of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car. Especially if you’re too young to remember it.

    So much of what we’re up against, and so much of what we’re working for, is in that song.

  • It’s here, though of course you should buy it if you can:

  • Nathanael

    Suburban poverty will look like rural poverty. Except without the open space and relatively clean air.

    It will be pretty nasty unless we start concentrating job locations, which is the key prerequisite to establishing good transportation for the masses.

  • Alan

    Question: how does society balance improving non-car transport (bike and ped as well as transit) in the suburbs without making it “easier” to live there and therefore more attractive for more people and jobs to keep moving out of denser, more sustainable cities and inner suburbs? In Boston, even though the inner city and inner suburbs have stopped their decline, the farther suburbs are still growing the fastest and expanding.

    Alan
    Somerville, MA

  • Nathanael

    “Question: how does society balance improving non-car transport (bike and ped as well as transit) in the suburbs without making it “easier” to live there and therefore more attractive for more people and jobs to keep moving out of denser, more sustainable cities and inner suburbs? In Boston, even though the inner city and inner suburbs have stopped their decline, the farther suburbs are still growing the fastest and expanding.”

    It turns out to be all about zoning.

    (1) Open space and agricultural land preservation laws.
    (2) Encourage clustered development — tightly knit towns with open space around them rather than subdivisions. You don’t get your *own* giant yard, but you have a shared giant park surrounding a cluster of houses.

    It simply shouldn’t be possible to rip up good farmland — or forestland — or wetlands! — to build houses, without paying large fees associated with the deleterious effects. In contrast, redevelopment of unused parcels clustered near existing development should be encouraged. Currently the financial incentives are the other way around usually (the unused parcels usually have industrial cleanup costs *and* high property values, the farmland is cheap….)

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