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What transportation policies would most help poor families?

The lives of low-income people “are much too complicated to work with mass transit alone.” So says Rolf Pendall of the Urban Institute.

Rendering of the proposed Southwest LRT shallow tunnels.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Council

Enter a new subject for discussion — new to me, anyway: transportation equity.

It came up several times at last week’s contentious hearing on the Southwest LRT, the 16-mile $1.6 billion-and-counting train line that will carry passengers from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

Now, way back when I was in city-planning school (just after the fall of the Roman Empire), I learned that mass transit’s primary purpose is to move huge crowds of people quickly and efficiently, thus reducing traffic congestion, improving air quality and curbing urban sprawl’s incursions into farmland.

Currently, however, it is also seen as a way to expand opportunities for the poor and otherwise disadvantaged. In theory, at least, investment in mass transit could spring low-income folks from isolated, poverty-stricken neighborhoods and propel them to areas with more plentiful employment and better schools. 

Greater equity from SWLRT?

Trouble is that at the hearing last week, people testified on both sides of the issue.

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Julie Sabo, a former state legislator who wrote about her views on SWLRT in a recent MinnPost Community Voices commentary, insists that the line won’t help the Twin Cities’ poorest because it doesn’t run through their neighborhoods. And, in point of fact, the SWLRT line would make only one stop in north Minneapolis, which arguably has a greater portion of people living under the poverty line than any other area in the city.  Others at the hearing urged the Metropolitan Council to drop the SWLRT and instead build the Bottineau line, which will stretch north to Brooklyn Center, a minority population center. (I’ve got news for them, however; the proposed alignment also skirts north Minneapolis.)

Among those who say the SWLRT would so produce greater equity is David Greene, who testified for ISAIAH, a coalition of 100 churches in the Twin Cities. The line, he said, is “the keystone for transportation equity”; it would help the poor and “transit-dependent” (planning jargon for people who don’t or can’t drive) to travel to job-rich suburbs, which are now accessible mostly by highway.

What’s more, he added in a later conversation, working class and immigrant communities up and down the line — “there is a higher concentration of people of color in Eden Prairie than in many other areas of the metro” — would benefit from access to the two downtowns and the University of Minnesota.

Entire system needed

Of course, no single train line is going to end or even curb poverty. Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities, a local advocacy group, says that what’s needed is an entire transit system.

“We are also advocating for an express bus line along American Boulevard connecting the Mall of America with Eden Prairie,” she said. “There are thousands of jobs out there.”

His constituency in north Minneapolis sees the new train line as a possible economic boon, says state Rep. Raymond Dehn. He pointed to a plan to grow 20,000 jobs in Eden Prairie’s Golden Triangle (although there’s no certainty that will happen).

“The LRT would cut commute time from and hour and a half to 30 minutes for north Minneapolis residents,” he added. “In that sense, the line will be a game-changer.”

But here’s the thing: The lives of low-income people “are much too complicated to work with mass transit alone.” So says Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a liberal Washington think tank. He, along with co-authors Casey Dawkins of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland and Evelyn Blumenberg at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, in a new study called “Driving to Opportunity,” took a look at how 12,000 recipients of housing vouchers (generally people with incomes below 30 percent of the area’s median income) in 10 cities sorted themselves into different neighborhooods and the role transportation played in their choice. (The Twin Cities were not included.)

Access to cars had major effects

Researchers’ overall finding: “Families with access to cars found housing in neighborhoods where environmental and social quality consistently and significantly exceeded that of the neighborhoods of households without cars.” And, they “moved to areas with lower concentrations of poverty, higher concentrations of employed adults, higher median rents, more owner-occupied housing, lower vacancy rates, greater access to open space and lower levels of cancer risk.” Even more important, one subset of voucher recipients were twice as likely to find a job as those without cars and four times as likely to stay employed.  

It’s not that driving is necessarily superior to taking a bus or train, says Pendall. Rather, most transit systems are slow and inconvenient and offer spotty coverage. Many of the families in the study were single mothers with a couple of kids. “I have trouble comprehending how they can get around or get a job, especially in [spread-out] cities like Houston or Atlanta,” he says. “But it’s even difficult in Chicago or Boston, which have good transit systems.”

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Think about it: If you are the typical “transit-dependent” single mother, you have to get on a bus or train to take your kids to day care or school — and maybe both. Then there’s the commute to your job. If you work two jobs, as many must, you get on another bus or train to travel to that. Then, it’s back to day care and/or school to pick the kids up (another trip) and a ride home. Heaven forfend that one of the children has to be taken to the doctor.

Of course, it would all work out beautifully if those jobs and day-care centers were within walking distance of home. But that happens all too rarely; competition for jobs in low-income neighborhoods is stiff.

Worse, many of the women work as cleaners and health aides in private homes, which aren’t located directly on transit lines like, say, corporate headquarters. 

So, I asked Pendall, should the government simply provide the poor with cars — or maybe low-cost loans to get them?

His answer: not so fast. First, it’s unclear whether car ownership alone leads people to better neighborhoods and regular employment or if those who’ve gone out of their way to get a car and driver’s license are perhaps more ambitious or are doing something else that makes them more successful. Like most researchers, he calls for more research to answer the question.

Cars’ drawbacks

But, he adds, cars have a significant drawback. They are phenomenally expensive. People in the lowest income brackets, earning below 30 percent of the area’s median income, typically spend about 13 percent of their pay on gas alone. Their total car expenses amount to about a third of their income.

“That’s more than the 30 percent allocated to housing,” he adds. Insurance companies charge them more because of poor credit scores, and they are more often subject to predatory lending practices that inflate loan payments.

And there’s almost no way for a poor family to get a car on the cheap. I found only two programs in the metro that offer poor families help with car purchases, the Community Emergency Assistance Program and Episcopal Community Services. Both can provide small, low- or no-interest loans. Pendall suggests that policymakers should rethink adjusting vehicle asset limits for people in safety-net programs and providing subsidies for auto purchases along with housing vouchers. 

An expanded transit system would likely boost opportunities for the poor. But it’s taken the Twin Cities 17 years merely to move the SWLRT forward — and, given Minneapolis’ opposition, it may stall permanently. Comprehensive transit coverage will take years, possibly decades, to complete as will the rearrangement of development — affordable housing and jobs — along high-speed corridors.

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In the meantime, says Pendall, we shouldn’t look askance at cars to help at least some families commute to jobs and to enjoy low-crime neighborhoods.