In typical me fashion, it was both absurdly long (some 4,200 words) and did more to identify problems than solutions. If you know me, you know that I’m a long-winded misanthrope, so the idea that I would complain about things far longer than anyone is willing to listen should come as no surprise.
But, as with my recent post on operationalizing air quality in bike lane planning, new research has shed further light on this particular issue and provides concrete insight into how we can begin to chip away at it.
Recent research provides new insights
In a forthcoming article (paywalled) in the journal Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, a group of researchers from Los Angeles and Singapore look at the issue of spatial mismatch and consider possible ways to decrease the job accessibility gap for low-income workers without access to a car.
According to the authors – Marlon G. Boarnet, Genevieve Giuliano, Yuting Hou, and Eun Jin Shin – while social scientists have researched spatial mismatch for more than 50 years, no one has considered how one’s mode of travel to/from transit stations affects his/her ability to access employment opportunities.
Their study, which is the first to consider this specific issue, asks two broad sets of questions.
First, to what extent is job access greater by car than via transit in low-income area?. And second, and more importantly, how does this gap change when we improve access to and from transit stations? This is the so-called first mile/last mile problem
Examining spatial mismatch in San Diego
To address these questions, Boarnet et al. examine job access by travel model for low-income job seekers in the San Diego metropolitan area. Using 2007-2011 5-year data from the American Community Survey and the National Employment Time Series, they measure the number of low-wage jobs that low-income job seekers can reach within 30 minutes of travel time.
As we would expect, people with a car have access to significantly more jobs than those who depend upon transit.
Low-wage workers living in the census tracts in the bottom quintile for job access via car can reach more than 200,000 jobs. In contrast, those workers living in Census tracts within the top quintile for job access via transit can reach fewer than 90,000 jobs.
In other words, even those workers living in the most transit-rich portions of San Diego have access to fewer than half as many jobs as workers with a car in the most disconnected parts of the region.
All of this supports what we already know – it’s far easier to get jobs if you can drive there.
The first mile/last mile dilemma
But how does the first mile/last mile problem play into all of this?
In their analysis, the authors found that people who walk to and from transit stations spent an average of 12.1 minutes – 17.5% of their total commute time – on this first mile/last mile component. Cutting this number down could potentially increase the number of jobs they can access.
To examine this question, the authors created a series of scenarios where they altered the amount of time that job seekers spent to walk to/from transit stations. They also created two scenarios in which transit service frequency increased by 25% and 50% respectively; in transitspeak, they reduced the average transit service headways by these amounts.
When you account for time spent walking to/from transit stations, 35.2 times more jobs are accessible via car than via transit within 30 minutes. Increasing transit service by 25% could cut this ratio down to 27.2 (a 22.7% reduction), while upping service frequency by 50% could get it down to 18.3 (a 48.1% reduction).
While these improvements are impressive, they would come at a high cost, particularly at a time when Ohio continues to cut its contribution to public transit. It’s hard to see how RTA could ever increase frequency by 50% when it cut bus revenue miles by nearly 40% from 2008-2014, more than any other major transit agency in the country.
Making the first mile/last mile problem into a solution
The results for changing one’s travel mode to/from transit stations are even more impressive, however. If a person drives/is driven to a station and walks home, the ratio falls to 18.6 from 35.2, roughly the same as halving service headways.
What if a person rides a bike for the first and last miles? That ratio falls even further, to just 14.2 (59.7% reduction).And, if you drive or are driven to and from a station, the ratio goes down an incredible 67% to just 11.6.
Though the authors examined this issue in San Diego, their results may be even more salient here in Cleveland.
While 6.1% of households in the San Diego metro area have zero vehicles, this number is 11% in Greater Cleveland. Moreover, according to the Brookings Institution, the number of jobs within a typical commute actually increased by 7.6% in San Diego from 2000-2012; in Cleveland, as we know, it fell an astounding 26%, more than any city in the country.
Boarnet et al. find some draw some clear implications from their research:
“Our results agree with the premise of those studies; transit access to low wage jobs in San Diego is far inferior to car access. Yet our research highlights other approaches that can increase job access for the transit dependent. These include (1) subsidies for bicycle access or bike sharing programs that include seamless integration of bicycling and transit, and (2) subsidies for formal or informal ride-sharing services that provide on-demand service to/from stations for persons who do not own a vehicle or for low-income residents who live beyond walking or biking distance from transit stops.
This suggests that ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft could play an important role in getting transit users to/from stations, but the costs would likely have to be subsidized, in partnership with the transit agency.
Ridesharing platforms, like Gohio Commute, can also help people better plan multi-modal commutes (e.g. driving to park-and-ride lots) and match with others for carpooling and vanpooling. Carsharing, which remains virtually nonexistent outside of college campuses in Cleveland, could also be an important resource in this space.
The importance of bikeshare
But equally important, the study illustrates how valuable a tool bikesharing can be. Biking the first and last mile does more to increase job accessibility for transit users than doubling frequency.
Yet, as Boarnet et al. note, the benefits of bikesharing can only be fully harnessed if the operators place stations close enough to transit stops. Unfortunately, Cleveland’s bikeshare system – UHBikes – does not currently serve this purpose.
At the moment, there are bikeshare hubs located in the immediate vicinity of just 6 RTA rapid stops – Flats East Bank, Settlers’ Landing, West 25th, Tower City, Cedar-University, and Little Italy-University Circle.
There are at least 20 more rapid stations in the CIty of Cleveland not currently served by bikeshare, and that’s not even counting all of the BRT stops along the Healthline and Cleveland State line. And, to my knowledge, there are no current plans to expand the UHBikes network at this time.
If we’re really serious about beginning to bridge this yawning gulf between low-income transit users and jobs, we need to do more to take advantage of this affordable opportunity. How many people could more readily access jobs farther afield if they could get a UHBike and ride to the rapid station or drive a subsidized carshare vehicle to a park-and-ride lot?
Adding new UHBikes hubs at RTA stations is not only far more feasible under current political and budgetary circumstances, – not to mention not dependent upon state funding – it’s also likely to be far more cost-effective.
The Cleveland bikeshare feasibility study estimated that each station costs $35,000 to install and operate, but that estimate was for a docking station-based system like Capital Bikeshare or Citi Bikes, not the hub system that we have.
Given these numbers, it seems patently obvious that our local governments and foundations could do far more to connect people to jobs in the short-term by expanding bikeshare and rideshare than by spending money on workforce development, giving out tax incentives for businesses to relocate, or hectoring RTA to expand service.
We could learn a lot from the German city Bremen, which has developed a network of more than 25 “mobility hubs” (known as Mobil.Punkt, which sounds pretty badass) that connect transit stations with carshare and bikeshare locations. The city’s carshare program alone has taken more than 4,200 private cars off the road in the decade or so that it’s been in operation.
I’ve been shouting for years now that social mobility is contingent upon physical mobility. This study just adds further evidence to this linkage. Now it’s time for Cleveland’s leaders to put their money where their mouths are.