Transit deserts, the regions where transportation demand exceeds that of supply, are frequently left out of the conversations currently shaping the future of transportation. With innovations like electric scooters, ride-hailing platforms, and autonomous vehicles dominating mobility trend coverage, we have to center those left out of the mobility narrative in order to provide accessible transportation to these communities.
The ramifications of unreliable transportation and neglect are rocking neighborhoods across the country. Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin found that 4.5 million people live in areas without reliable access to transit, which ultimately leads to a lack of employment opportunities, fresh food, and even access to quality health care.
The question is, then, with such a deep impact on people’s quality of life, why do transit deserts happen and how can we reframe mobility trends to better-serve members of these communities?
The prevalence and rise of transit deserts
While the term “desert” conjures up connotations of remote locations, transit deserts can often be near or within large metropolitan areas. Despite their proximity, they have been designed with ineffective methods of getting to areas of opportunity. For example, Sacramento, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and San Antonio are just a few of the places where transportation demand exceeds supply for large portions of the population. The leading region for transit inequality lies in San Francisco, where nearly 14% of residents of the city are underserved by transit.
But what does it mean to be underserved by transit? Well, while 85% of Americans use a car to get to work, there are many folks that either can’t afford a personal vehicle, are disabled and unable to drive, or rely on public transit for daily mobility. These people then become dependent on modes of transportation and infrastructures that are plagued by unreliability, infrequent operating schedules, and scarcity in lower-income regions.
As gentrification and rising housing costs have steadily pushed higher rates of low-income and people of color away from urban centers, America’s transportation infrastructure has been slow to keep up. This infrastructure was already built on the historical practice of redlining, which effectively barred off transit and access to communities of color for decades.
This forces many to rely on mobility systems that are difficult to navigate or are outdated, and the effects are numerous.
Communities are entrapped in poverty and diminishing health
The ramifications of inadequate transportation options are rippling through transit deserts. Transportation is a key driver for achieving upward economic mobility. According to a Harvard study, commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor for those working towards escaping poverty.
The study also found that longer average commute times translate to lower chances of a low-income family achieving economic and class mobility. The relationship between transportation and social mobility is so strong that it outweighs other factors such as crime, school test scores, and the amount of two-parent families in a community, Harvard economists say.
Not only do transit deserts bar financial success, but they also cause adverse health effects for entire communities. A longer commute can lead to increased rates of stress and lower overall satisfaction for life, which can cause long-term mental health disorders like depression. Furthermore, emissions created from transportation also disproportionately affect minority communities, exacerbating pollution inequity across the country.
The persistence of a problem that doesn’t look to be resolving itself any time soon leaves great room for innovations in the transportation space. These issues can be solved, but it will take a reframing of our current mobility discourse before we make headway.
Who are we building mobility solutions for?
With such difficult realities facing residents throughout transit deserts, transportation planners and technology developers need to ask themselves who they’re building for. Many recent advancements in the mobility space are last-mile solutions, like e-bikes and scooters, or are services too expensive to maintain regularly, like ride-hailing or vanpooling. By focusing on these modes, we ignore potential solutions for the majority of American commuters.
Nationally, the average commute distance is about 16 miles, which makes recent mobility innovations an unrealistic option for many. However, there are transportation solutions being built for people who reside in locations left out by the latest last-mile mobility innovations rising in dense urban areas.
Flexible and accessible commute options have the potential to create economic and life-changing opportunities for people across the country. Technology developers, city planners, and employers must work together to make strategic investments to remove the barriers of mobility access.