05/12/2011 06:52 pm ET | Updated Jul 12, 2011

Wide Disparities In Public Transit Access Keep Residents From Jobs, Brookings Study Says

WASHINGTON -- Seven in 10 working-age metropolitan residents live within three-quarters of a mile of a transit stop. But a new study from the Brookings Institution found that these commuters can reach only 30 percent of the jobs in their area in under 90 minutes.

The report, "Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America," revealed access to jobs varied widely across metro areas: from 60 percent in Honolulu to just 7 percent in Palm Bay, Fla. Such differences reflect variable rates of transit coverage, disparities in service frequencies as well as differing levels of employment and population decentralization, the authors of the report note. In large metropolitan areas, the percent of jobs accessible via public transit ranged from 37 percent in New York to just 16 percent in Miami.

The findings, which are based on data from 371 transit providers in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, come as local governments struggle to pay for public transit. Many are being forced to increase fares or seek federal aid. With governments at all levels considering deep budget cuts, the report authors say it is increasingly important to understand how well public transit options align with where people work and live.

"It's not enough to create new and better jobs if workers can't get to them," said Bruce Katz, vice president of Brookings and director of its Metropolitan Policy Program. "Forty-five percent of jobs were 10 miles away from the central business district, so these location dynamics have completely upended the daily commute."

Katz said the country has regained about 20 percent of the jobs lost during the downturn. He noted that, while the U.S. jobs creation is picking up, it's not growing fast enough. If the rate of employment growth stays the same, it would take 29 months to regain all the jobs that were lost in the recession, Katz said.

"We need a new game plan," said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program. That means "more jobs and better jobs," he added, "but we need to make sure those jobs are accessible."

Puentes pointed to a handful of Western and coastal communities where a dense urban population as well as geographic barriers such as the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Ocean have made it easier to implement comprehensive public transit systems. Indeed, of the 20 highest-ranked transit systems, the report found 15 in this group, with Honolulu; San Jose, Ca.; Tucson, Ariz;, Salt Lake City, Utah; and Fresno, Ca., topping the list.

"These are places that have invested heavily in their transit systems," said Puentes. "Jobs and housing are more compact, and that makes it easier to serve by transit. They are also more likely to have topographical barriers like mountains, oceans and deserts, which hem in growth."

But the report also found exceptions to the West Coast rule. New York's public transit system, ranked at 13th, beat out both San Francisco's (16th) and Seattle's (18th). Washington, D.C., came in 17th.

The weakest public transit systems, or 15 of the 20 lowest-ranking metro areas, were found in the South. A handful of older systems in cities that residents left decades ago for the suburbs -- Boston (34th), Philadelphia (49th) -- didn't fair well either.

Regardless of region, the authors of the report said these trends have broad implications for leaders at the local and national levels.

Transportation planners should make job access via public transit an explicit priority, report authors say, especially where spending decisions and allocating scarce resources are concerned.

The authors also emphasized the importance of coordinating planning strategies across areas of expertise, such as land use, housing and economic development. As if to underscore the point, Brookings invited Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Housing Secretary Sean Donovan to speak at a panel discussion on the report.

"There has to be connectivity," said LaHood, adding that Americans are going to rely increasingly on public transit as gas prices increase.

Puentes also underscored the importance of implementing new strategies in a changing urban landscape.

"If you always do what you always did," he said, quoting Yogi Berra, "you'll always get what you always got."