By Focusing on Cars Over Public Transportation, Cities Continue to Foster Inequality


A recent study suggests that racial and gender income inequality can be at least partly addressed by expanding transportation opportunities beyond the automobile — though that message appears to have been missed by some federal lawmakers weighing the fate of a new rail tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey.

A recent study suggests that racial and gender income inequality can be at least partly addressed by expanding transportation opportunities beyond the automobile.

Visual: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

Last year, legislators had agreed to include $900 million in a federal spending bill for the $30 billion Gateway tunnel project that would include building the tunnel and other overdue renovations on a major rail segment in the Northeast, but President Trump promised earlier this month to veto the bill if funds for the tunnel, coveted by the president’s Democratic rivals, were included. Congressional leaders agreed Wednesday on a spending bill that lacks that seed money — though Democratic lawmakers said Thursday that the reconfigured bill could allow them to access more than half of the original $900 million without Trump’s approval.

However the bickering shakes out, the reality is that more than 400,000 people commute every day by train, bus, or light rail between New Jersey and New York City — more than the number of people who commute between any other states in the nation. The rail tunnel under the Hudson River would double commuter capacity on rail lines from New Jersey to Manhattan, according to a 2016 report by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In May 2017, Trump’s Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao called the tunnel project an “absolute priority.”

Policies and projects that broaden transportation options beyond driving a car significantly reduce income inequality between urban white and black households and between men and women in cities, according to a recent study published in the journal Local Environment. In cities with this “multimodal” infrastructure, white men see no loss of income even as other demographic groups tend to earn more income, the researchers found. White men are more likely than white women, black men, and black women to own cars.

“Increasing rail capacity means more opportunities for people who do not have cars,” says study co-author Chad Frederick, an assistant professor of sustainability studies and urban planning at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. “Multimodal infrastructure enables more people to participate in a wider labor market.”

Even setting aside goals for equity and the established health and clean air benefits of kicking the car habit, getting more people into job markets increases competition among workers, which most researchers agree strengthens the economy.

The finding is based on an analysis of 2013 census data on the types of transportation that residents used to commute to work in 148 midsize U.S. cities, ranging from Pittsburgh to Dothan, Alabama, along with demographic data such as the race, income, and gender of residents. Frederick and his co-author John Gilderbloom, director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods at the University of Louisville, chose to focus on particular cities because they are far enough from other cities to reduce the influence of nearby areas’ transportation infrastructure and policies.

About 6 percent of all Americans live in the midsize central cities and 25 percent of all Americans live in metropolitan areas that surround these cities. Most U.S. cities currently are trying to make it easier for people to drive automobiles, walk, and bicycle to get around. But none have committed to “multimodal” transportation policies that are likely to work, Frederick says, because making it easier for residents to own and drive cars defeats efforts to ease bike use and walking.

For example, most automobile infrastructure, such as requirements for new developments in city centers to include a minimum number of dedicated parking spots, makes driving a car more attractive and new bike lines or bus routes less so.

Alternatively, expansions in rail, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure enable more choice, Frederick says.

Many policies combine to keep people in poverty and stifle wage growth, but one strong way to spur upward mobility is to increase choice at the fundamental level of transportation, Frederick says. Policies and urban projects that connect neighborhoods also connect people with broader labor and housing markets.

“One of the great foundations of a liberal society is choice, and if you’re limiting people who don’t have a car, then you’re extracting them, as it were, from the economy,” he says. “You need to put more people in the economy. That’s what an economy is all about. It’s all about people circulating wealth, contributing their labor, creativity and efficiency. Increasing rail capacity means more opportunities for people who do not have cars. You’re enabling them to contribute to the economy.”