Government’s Poor Urban Planning Is Probably Costing You Money

Source: David McNew/Getty Images

Source: David McNew/Getty Images

You’ve suspected that the government’s poor planning has been costing your community money, and now there’s some (more) proof to that notion.

If policymakers are looking for one way to keep local economies on track, improving public transportation options may be the perfect place to start. A study released by a team of researchers from the U.S. Census Bureau, Harvard University, the University of Maryland, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has found that geographic barriers — that is, physical limitations including urban sprawl and poor public transportation systems — can directly lead to higher levels of unemployment.

This concept, called spatial mismatch, goes on to explain how certain areas of the country and different parts of cities experience higher levels of unemployment because they are isolated from employment centers. In other words, if you live in a suburb of a major city that is 10 or 15 miles away from where most of the jobs are, you are more likely to go without a job. Now, people may choose to live further from their workplaces for a variety of reasons, but it mostly comes down to affordability. Houses and apartments typically cost much more closer to downtown areas, because the demand for them is higher. Thus, lower-income individuals get pushed to the outer rims of metropolitan areas in many cases, elongating commutes, and ultimately leading to big employment barriers.

By looking at nearly 250.000 lower-income individuals living in nine cities across the Midwest — all of whom had strong and consistent employment backgrounds — researchers found that unemployment levels and distance from job sites were linked. By using a metric dubbed ‘job accessibility’, or how close an individual lives to a given employment center, researchers were able to come up with quantifiable data to reach a conclusion.

“We find that better job accessibility significantly decreases the duration of joblessness among lower-paid displaced workers,” the researchers conclude. “…an increase from the 25th to the 75th percentile of job accessibility is associated with a 4.2% reduction in search duration for finding any job, and a 5.6 and 7% reduction for accessions to a new job with 75 and 90%of prior job earnings, respectively.”

If access to employment centers is a key catalyst behind keeping employment numbers down, then it would make sense for policymakers to focus on increasing accessibility, right?

That’s what logic would dictate, but it’s not necessarily what’s happening. As budget shortfalls and belt-tightening have strained budgets, public transportation — a pivotal ingredient in increasing job accessibility for lower-income workers — is often one of the first items on the chopping block. Of course, there are several factors that play into the problem, including a lack of affordable housing and zoning issues, but public transportation seems so vital to a city and economy’s health that it’s odd it would be one of the first targets for budget-slashers.

In an era when income inequality and economic forces are slamming the middle and lower classes exceptionally hard, public resources, like transportation, are being used now more than ever. In fact, USA Today reports that public transit ridership is up 37.2% over the past 20 years, outpacing the national population growth of 20.3%. “There’s a fundamental shift going on,” Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association told USA Today. “This isn’t a one-year blip. More and more people are deciding that public transportation is a good option.”

According to APTA’s most recent report, for the second quarter of 2014, the trend hasn’t receded. Americans are still turning to public transit services in record numbers, with a 0.32% total increase for 2014 over the previous year, through April. That includes riders on a variety of different rail systems, as well as bus trips. This is continuous evidence of Melaniphy’s ‘fundamental shift’ theory, which is largely being driven by increased inequality. If people are struggling finding steady work, affording a personal vehicle and paying for gas and insurance, then turning to public transportation is usually their only option.

The question is, how does the electorate convince officials to stop cutting into public transportation and infrastructure funding, and instead redirect those cuts at something else? The main issue is that people who do not use public transit often don’t want to be stuck having their tax dollars pay for it, and want transportation officials to break infrastructure and transit spending up. While many people who live in rural states, or areas with low population density often don’t have public transportation anyway, that isolation in itself oftentimes leads to many of those areas becoming more impoverished.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The Obama administration has been scrambling to find a way to pay for infrastructure upgrades and other transportation shortfalls, but as has been the case with almost every issue over the past six years, they’ve encountered stiff resistance. But when it comes to transportation spending, which the country is in dire need of, the president has run into stiff resistance.

“I’m talking to members of Congress all the time. This is a dialogue, it’s not a monologue,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, in an interview with The Washington Post last year. “We fully expect that there will be other ideas out there, and it’s a matter of getting those ideas on the table. We’re going to continue engaging with Congress.”

With a new Republican-dominated Congress, however, getting any new bills or laws successfully through the House or Senate to then be signed by the president will be quite a feat. A recent poll showed that a big majority of Americans support increased federal spending on public transportation. That’s in spite of public support for increased spending. 68% of respondents said they would support a federal government decision to spike spending, up from 66% the year before, according to the APTA survey, The Hill reports.

Perhaps a big percentage of those who support the notion are finding themselves engaged with issues resulting from funding shortfalls? Without a doubt, increased public transit options would allow for more job accessibility in cities around the country, and possibly help get the economy back on stable footing again. It would definitely help many people with their job searches, as research has indicated. Again, getting these concerns onto Congress’ radar is the major hurdle. If policymakers can focus on relatively simple ways to fix the economy, like boosting public transportation, rather than largely-unimportant issues, perhaps America can get back on the right track.

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