The Evolution of 'Transit Deserts' and How to Achieve Transit Equity, Mobility

Posted on November 28, 2017 by Diane Jones Allen, D.Eng., ASLA, PLA - Also by this author

A "transit desert" neighborhood. Image: Diane Jones Allen

On a Friday night, after class, one of my students was hit by a car, while riding her bike home. Fortunately, she was okay with just a few bruises, although her bike was mangled. This incident is par for the course, as we live in a city with no public transit, which is still quite unbelievable for a city of this size, around 400,000-plus-or-minus, and very few, if any, dedicated bike lanes. Therefore, those who are without automobiles are forced to take their chances in a car-oriented environment, where housing and services are spread afar and little walkability is to be found.

Transit deserts are often areas of low development that have had economic and demographic shifts.

Areas such as this can be described as transit deserts. 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. “Transit Desert,” is a term first used in 2007 by Professor David Hulchanski from the University of Toronto, and 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. Often, there was little or no thought given to the fact that these shifted 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 transit desert neighborhoods. This more recent problem is compounded by 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 land 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 suburban physiographic conditions encountered. These characteristics have real impact have real impact on people’s lives. An excerpt from the book “Lost in the Transit Desert: Race, Transit Access and Suburban Form,” published by Routledge Press, gives an undeniable picture of how lives are impacted by living in environments with little or no frequent and reliable transit access.

Ms. Daigle at her complex. Image: Diane Jones Allen
Ms. Daigle at her complex. Image: Diane Jones Allen

“Ms. Daigle, a native New Orleanian, who lives in a residential complex in New Orleans East, sits in her apartment, and earnestly tells of the challenges and trials she faces getting to work using public transit. “In 2005 I was staying in the East, and I had to walk from the I-10 Service Road to Lake Forest Blvd., in the dark. I was working at Charity Hospital at Night.” Charity Hospital, a teaching hospital in New Orleans, which catered to the indigent, was not reopened after Hurricane Katrina. “I had to come out from the Service Road to Lake Forest Blvd. at 11 p.m. at night, so I quit my job, because it was too dangerous. I had to walk through the complex by myself at night,” says Ms. Daigle. “When Katrina hit, I was staying in the East. After Katrina, I moved back in the East, and I had to walk again from the Service Road all the way to Lake Forest Blvd. I leave out of my house at 4:30 in the morning, to catch the 5 a.m. bus, and that is dangerous. The bus picks me up about 5 a.m., and I get to Canal Street at about 5:25 am. Then I have to wait on Canal Street, for the streetcar that picks me up about five minutes later, to get to the end of the line.” Safety, and the danger involved in waiting long hours for transit, in the dark, are reoccurring issues in Ms. Daigle’s accounting.”

“Transit Deserts” include how far one has to walk, the time it takes to access transit, and the suburban physiographic conditions encountered.

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 U.S. 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.

A "transit desert" neighborhood. Image: Diane Jones Allen
A "transit desert" neighborhood. Image: Diane Jones Allen
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.

A transit friendly, walkable, neighborhood. Image: Diane Jones Allen
A transit friendly, walkable, neighborhood. Image: Diane Jones Allen
Transit Deserts exist, are definable, and a method for quantifying demand, catalytic forecasting, to plan transportation systems within Transit Deserts can be employed. Catalytic forecasting consist of placing demand at every parcel in a neighborhood or transit zone. Therefore, the query is what method should be used to develop these systems, and provide an acceptable level of mobility to those who don’t have automobiles, and to those who don’t which to use them. Presently, transportation policies have failed to catch up with the changing demographics or even recognized that that demographics are changing. The shifts in where the jobs are and where people live greatly impact the advantages in owning a car or the disadvantage of not owning one and the importance of available mass transportation. 

Transportation planning has focused on mobility, with measured speed and velocity being the dominant factors for evaluation of efficiency as to opposed to focusing on access.

Denver’s free Sixteenth Street Shuttle. Image: Alexandra Hay
Denver’s free Sixteenth Street Shuttle. Image: Alexandra Hay
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. “Neighborhood circulators” — minibuses are also 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, but they are public systems that can 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.

In American cities, hacking is basically Uber for the poor, in that many low income residents do not have credit cards, and therefore cannot use registered ridesharing services.

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’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.

In American cities, hacking is basically Uber for the poor, in that many low income residents do not have credit cards, and therefore cannot use registered ridesharing services. Although illegal, underground ride sharing 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.

Hacker. Image: Diane Jones Allen
Hacker. Image: Diane Jones Allen

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, 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. Systems, 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.

Diane Jones Allen, D.Eng., ASLA, PLA, is Program Director of Landscape Architecture at the College of Architecture Planning and Public Affairs, University of Texas at Arlington.

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