Transit Deserts: Failing to Provide Access

A student "hacking" in Morgan Park, North East Baltimore, Maryland image: Diane Jones Allen, 2013
A student “hacking” in Morgan Park, North East Baltimore, Maryland
image: Diane Jones Allen, 2013

The story of Detroit resident James Robertson, who, due to patchy bus service, walked 21 miles as part of his daily commute to get to a factory job 23 miles away in the suburbs where he earned $10.55 an hour, captured the public imagination in February 2015 when his story was publicized. It generated a crowdsourcing response of over $350,000, and a local Ford dealer’s donation of an automobile. While the outpouring of generosity solved one man’s transportation issues, it failed to provide for the rest of the fragmented Detroit metropolitan region, or other regions facing similar issues, crippled by suburbs that intentionally choose to opt out of regional bus service. While Baltimore is comparably better served by public transit than other metropolitan regions, its African American residents have provided their own highly effective, yet illegal, answer to transit deficiencies: hacking. Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, discusses these issues and offers a response in her dissertation for Morgan State University in 2014. She is currently furthering this topic in a book about transit deserts, race, and suburban form. Portions of her dissertation and future book are summarized and excerpted below.
–Ellen Barth Alster, ASLA, Landscape Architecture and Transportation PPN Chair

Within the past five decades, public transit-dependent and urban-oriented populations have been relocated or shifted to outer-urban, auto-oriented neighborhoods at the same rates that African-Americans moved to northern cities from southern rural communities during the preceding five decades of the Great Migration. These outer-urban areas have not offered adequate public transit to support economically viable employment, nor have they provided access to social and cultural networks, resulting from the suburban and low density built forms which favor the automobile. These areas are called “Transit Deserts,” a term first used in 2007 by Professor David Hulchanski from the University of Toronto. This topic is closely related to the “Food Desert” discourse, tying geographic form, neighborhood income, and public and private policies into a triangular model that drives an ever increasing number of American citizens into poverty through a narrowing of access to quality food or transportation.

There are several reasons certain communities become “Transit Deserts.” They are often areas of low development that have had economic and demographic shifts. Recently, in the re-development of cities, urban revitalization and renewal projects have occurred in the inner urban areas and downtowns. One result of this has been the displacement and relocation of populations that are heavily dependent on transit to outer-urban areas with decreased transit availability, with little or no thought given to the fact that these new residents were being displaced to auto-oriented communities with minimal or non-existent public transit. Also, there is often opposition to providing or increasing transit access in these neighborhoods. This more recent problem compounded earlier transportation inequities created by urban renewal projects, particularly highway expansion. Freeways, including overpasses, are major organizing elements in the urban landscape, and their location determines neighborhood interaction and access. The universal impact of highway building in urban environments on minority communities, with little access to the political process, has historically been overlooked.

Most American inner urban areas tend to be well served by transit and have mixed used residential and commercial development, densely located structures, and, most important, streets aligned in a grid pattern where local streets easily lead to arterials. In contrast, outer-urban areas are automobile oriented with uses separated, low density development, and streets laid out in curving patterns where local streets do not easily travel through to arterials. The unique form of these areas, in particular the outer urban areas, impacts access to transit. The characteristics that make up the areas designated as “Transit Deserts” include how far one has to walk, the time it takes to access transit, and the urban physiographic conditions encountered.

Building mass transit that can interconnect development and follow existing street patterns, thereby providing equitable service, is difficult when neighborhood form is not conducive to transit. The main objective of transit equity is to maximize service coverage, so that automobile dependency can be minimized in outer urban areas. Density is a factor in travel access. Providing infill housing can increase density in a neighborhood, but will have little effect on the street patterns themselves. Increased density also has socioeconomic implications that may be more difficult to address than increasing transit coverage.

High density and mixed used neighborhoods are associated with fewer motorized trips, smaller travel distances and shorter travel time. In locations of higher density, transit can be organized more efficiently and public transit systems, like buses, can have more routes and higher frequencies of service. It is also more cost efficient to provide increased service with increased use. Pedestrian and transit oriented design, characterized by small block sizes, complete sidewalks and infrastructure systems, the absence of cul-de-sacs, and limited residential parking are more prevalent in inner urban neighborhoods. These features discourage car use and facilitate transit use.

In addition to form configurations that discourage bus use, quality of life concerns lead individuals to oppose transit in neighborhoods of suburban residential form. Rose Weitz describes this in her July 2008 paper in the Journal of Urbanism, titled “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bus? NIMBYism and Popular Images of Public Transit.” Transportation in the United States is based on the idea that the private car offers the greatest freedom of movement and offers the most time efficient way to travel, thereby making it essential. Those with cars often feel that bus service is not needed and does not merit tax expenditures. These same people often feel that bus service will serve the needs of others, at the expense of the residents of their neighborhood, and is also linked to the theme of “othering,” which is that bus users are different from themselves, and bring crime to their neighborhoods. The majority of public transit riders nationally are categorized as economically poor, and, while nationally more than half of public transit riders are not only poor but also minority, research implies that public transit does not increase crime. Concerns that bus service would increase traffic, pollution, noise, and generally degrade quality of life are also expressed by opponents. Studies determine that bus riders, on average, are less affluent then riders of light rail. Light rail, however, is many times costlier than buses to implement.

Denver's free Sixteenth Street Shuttle image: Alexandra Hay
Denver’s free Sixteenth Street Shuttle
image: Alexandra Hay

My research at Morgan State University uses a formulation for the routing and stop spacing of “neighborhood circulators”—mini buses as a way to link residents to arterials where regional transit is found. These have been used on college campuses and more recently in downtown areas. Baltimore currently has two circulators in use: the Charm City Circulator, a free shuttle downtown, and the Mondawmin Shuttle, which connects neighborhoods to the main bus service. Denver also has a free downtown shuttle. Use of these systems in strictly residential communities is still relatively new. My research presents them as public systems to provide equitable access in “Transit Deserts” as well as make neighborhoods that are suburban in form more livable and conducive to transit access, availability, and efficiency. Circulators can link to major transit, and allow an increase of ridership that would help pay and advocate for an increased frequency of service on existing lines, thereby improving overall transit in an area.

Transit equity and mobility can be achieved in outer urban areas if systems are developed that conform to the form and scale of the area, and if riders and system designers can accept the need to change vehicles in the course of a trip. The faster and more efficiently transit operates, the more it can compete with automobile travel. Even riders provided with a secondary or localized service with smaller vehicles and closer spaced stops will use transit rather than a personal vehicle when proved sufficiently convenient. The rider with no other viable alternative may no longer consider themselves as captive to public transit if not owning a car can be a liberating, flexible experience and a sustainable alternative.

Inhabitants of “Transit Deserts” often use creative and flexible methods, such as “hacking” or the use of personal taxis, to make up for transit deficiencies. Hacking is a booming economy in Baltimore, Maryland’s African-American community, whose residents often prefer to call or flag down drivers to taking public transportation. Hacking is, like the ‘van’ systems found in many African and Caribbean countries, an underground economy that grows around the demand for public transportation infrastructure among those living on the geographic and political margins of society. Although illegal, it is driven by genuine need, as a response to lack of transit and neighborhood form. Despite the inherent risk in traveling alone in a stranger’s vehicle, the practice persists. Considerably quicker and more convenient for those without a car than taking the bus, subway, or light rail, and costing less than a taxi cab, it offers the distinct advantage of taking the rider directly to a destination, rather than via a roundabout public transit route.

Although race is a factor for why people hack, as legal taxi cabs routinely pass by people of color, it’s not the only one. Hacking originally concentrated outside of grocery stores, and spread as drivers picked up people up along streets signaling for rides. A variety of people use hacks, including women with groceries, college students, and people going to work. In Baltimore, it has evolved into a quick and easy income source, with drivers organizing into Hack Clubs. Drivers can be categorized into three groups: blue collar retirees, those using hacking as a second income, and those who have not been able to find mainstream employment, due to prison records or lack of education. The latter group includes women, many with disabilities or laid off from other jobs. While the Baltimore police department classifies hacking as an illegal activity and is highly aware that it exists, crackdowns have not typically occurred.

Transit usefulness mostly lies in the design of the network, its responds to urban form, and ridership demand. Transit technologies should be selected for their ability to maximize the personal mobility of the entire community. The intrinsic geometry of public transit must become part of the necessary urban form of sustainable and equitable cities. A circulator system, which acts a catalyst for and connects transit deficient communities to improved existing service, is one way of achieving the goal of just, open, and equitable transit access in neighborhoods defined as “Transit Deserts.” In the absence of affordable and convenient public transit options, grass roots solutions, including hacking, will continue to arise.

by Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, DesignJones LLC

2 thoughts on “Transit Deserts: Failing to Provide Access

  1. ecosentido May 1, 2015 / 5:46 pm

    Reblogged this on Ecosentido and commented:
    Desiertos de transportación pública. Tremendo concepto para dar a conocer el problema gigantesco de justicia social en nuestras ciudades y campos. Sin transporte una creciente proporción de la población no tiene acceso al trabajo que los puede sacar de la pobreza.

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