November 15, 2017 5:40PM

Helping People Reach Jobs

What is the best way to help low-income people -- a group that disproportionately includes blacks and Latinos -- get access to jobs? That question is certainly not answered by a report from left-wing think tank Demos. The report is aptly titled To Move Is to Thrive, but its subtitle, "Public Transit and Economic Opportunity for People of Color," gives away its real agenda: more subsidies to the transit industry.

Written by Algernon Austin, the author of America Is Not Post-Racial, the report observes that "people of color" are less likely to own cars and more likely to be transit-dependent than white people. But Austin ignores the obvious and best solution, which is to give low-income people (regardless of color) access to cars. Instead, his report promotes "transit-focused infrastructure projects" in minority neighborhoods.

Since 1970, this nation has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on transit infrastructure projects. These projects have been disproportionately directed towards middle-class neighborhoods because middle-class people are the ones who pay for them through their taxes and the ones whose political support is needed to build them.

At the same time, the high cost of these projects has often forced transit agencies to cut bus service to low-income neighborhoods. This has happened in Atlanta, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and numerous other places, often resulting in overall declines in transit ridership.

The NAACP successfully sued Los Angeles Metro for cutting bus service to minority neighborhoods to pay for new rail construction to middle-class neighborhoods. The court ordered Metro to restore and maintain bus service to minority neighborhoods for ten years. That order expired in 2006. Since 2007, Metro expanded its light-rail system from 109 to 171 miles, increasing light-rail vehicle-miles of service by 58 percent. But to do so, it cut bus service by nearly 20 percent and lost 25 percent of its bus riders. By 2016, it had gained close to 21 million light-rail trips per year, but it lost more than 101 million bus trips.

What makes Austin think that more spending on transit infrastructure will have different results when the wealthy will continue to use their political power to make sure that government spending benefits themselves, not low-income minorities?

Or take Washington, DC, whose subway system (according to historian Zachary Schrag) was specifically designed to avoid low-income neighborhoods because planners assumed that low-income workers would not be able to afford to ride the trains. Under pressure from the black community, planners made a late addition of the Green Line to Anacostia/Navy Yard, a predominately black neighborhood south of the Capitol. Once the line was built, much of the area  quickly gentrified with government office buildings and tax-increment financing, pushing black residents into Prince Georges County, which has little rail service.

Again, why would Austin think more transit infrastructure would have different results, especially when rail transit is sold to local officials for its supposed ability to "rehabilitate neighborhoods" (i.e., slum clearance or gentrification)?

If Austin really wanted to help low-income people using transit, he would advocate a halt to new transit infrastructure construction, for that construction almost invariably harms transit-dependent low-income workers. But if Austin really wanted to help low-income families in general, he would advocate giving low-income people better access to automobiles, which offer people speedier trips to more potential jobs than any transit improvements.

One recent study found that low-income people with cars have access to 30 times as many jobs as low-income people dependent on transit. Not only do transit speeds average just 15 mph (see p. 9), while average auto speeds in most cities are twice that, autos allow users to go where and when they want to go, while transit riders must go where and when the transit goes, which often means less direct routes than they could drive.

An alternative to spending billions on new transit infrastructure would be to give some of the subsidies now being spent on transit to low-income people in the form of vouchers they could use on any form of transportation. Some might continue to ride transit; others might buy a used car; still others might use Lyft or other ride-sharing services.

The Ways to Work program offers low-income people low-interest loans to buy a used car or repair a car so they can more easily get to work. Loan repayment rates are high, so the program ends up costing taxpayers very little money. While the link goes to a program in Wisconsin, many other states have similar programs.

This is not only more effective than transit infrastructure, it is more sustainable because once people have a job, they will pay their own transportation costs. By comparison, transit requires heavy and continuing subsidies that are something like 40 times greater, per passenger mile, than highway subsidies. In many cases, transit subsidies to commuters are so great that it would be less expensive to simply give those commuters new cars. But the Ways to Work program doesn't give anyone anything; it merely loans them money so they can become self-sufficient. Thus, Ways to Work can reach far more people for far less money than building new transit infrastructure.

During a debate over this issue, the general manager of one of the nation's largest transit agencies responded to my proposals by saying, "We can't give poor people cars; it would create too much congestion!" In other words, he was counting on both poverty and congestion to justify his job and the subsidies to his agency. 

Demos claims to be "working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy." I certainly support that goal. But we aren't going to reach it with a two-tiered society in which whites enjoy the mobility offered by cars while minorities are limited to destinations they can reach on mass transit, which is what Austin seems to be advocating.

Austin is right about one thing: to move is to thrive. But he failed to realize that autos allow people to move faster, cheaper, and more conveniently than transit. Demos' goals would be better achieved by jettisoning slow, expensive mass transit systems and instead making sure everyone has equal access to urban transportation that is fast, affordable, and reaches the most jobs.