Mayor Dwight C. Jones held a meeting of the Anti-Poverty Commission to discuss the state of public transportation in the region–and it’s not great. Richmond ranked 92 out of 100 cities surveyed.
Mayor Dwight C. Jones held a meeting of the Anti-Poverty Commission to discuss the state of public transportation in the region. Those in attendance included local experts, community organizers, as well as representatives from Richmond and surrounding counties. Brookings Institute Senior Fellow and Research Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington DC, Alan Berube, was the meeting’s principal speaker.
The Brookings Institute study, titled Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America, is a national survey of metropolitan bus routes throughout the United States. The study, presented to the Anti-Poverty Commission last Wednesday, found that Richmond’s bus system provides limited transit coverage, poor job access, and enormous city/suburb disparity.
“The most important determinant of poverty is employment. People in jobs, especially full-time jobs, are much less likely to be poor. And reliable transportation—or the lack of it—can be the difference between getting and maintaining a job, and being unemployed,” Berube said.
According to the recent study, 27% of jobs in the greater Richmond metropolitan area are accessible by transit. What Berube referred to as “high skill” jobs – for example, financial and technical jobs – currently have the highest rate of coverage at 34%. Only 16% of the region’s low skill jobs are accessible by bus. Overall the study ranks Richmond 92 out of 100 in its “combined access” ranking.
Berube advised policy makers to “think about how to get workers of all skill levels across the region,” as a means of alleviating poverty.
Both Berube and Mayor Jones emphasized the need for expanded bus routes in areas surrounding Richmond. At the meeting’s commencement Mayor Jones announced, “We need to expand our thinking and our discussion…in order to have a truly regional transportation.”
Although public transportation is highly accessible within city limits, only 18% of individuals living in Richmond’s suburbs have transit coverage. Most bus routes end just outside the city, even though over a quarter of jobs are located in Richmond’s counties. Significantly, many employment opportunities in these areas are low and mid-level skill jobs with high turnover rates.
An expanded and improved bus system “could stitch the city together in a meaningful way,” said Berube. He continued, “Inevitably the region has to tackle the issue as a region…it requires regional vision.”
Several County Administrators from surrounding areas were personally invited to this meeting by Mayor Jones, including Jay Stegmaier of Chesterfield County. Currently, there are only four Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) routes that travel to Chesterfield County. Stegmaier agreed regional vision is useful when addressing matters such as transportation, but he foresaw difficulties with expanding bus routes.
On regional planning, Stegmaier said “We have a metro planning commission working on transportation.” However, the Richmond Regional Planning Commission does not have the authority to raise revenue necessary to pay for operation costs of expanded bus routes. “The only real opportunity to fund something like this,” said Stegmaier, “would be through property taxes.” More relevant sources of revenue such as taxes on the fuel go to the state.
Additionally, “Chesterfield has fewer people per acre…In areas with higher densities it is easier to put in a transit line,” said Stegmaier.
Stegmaier also questioned why, during a time of rising gas prices, buses were the focus of Berube’s presentation. In response, Berube said “I don’t think preferring one mode of transit over another is as important as picking the mode that achieves your most important goals.”
He continued, “Some metro areas will choose light rail as part of a larger economic development strategy around new stations, and to reduce exposure to fluctuating gas prices. Others will choose buses because they cost less, can be deployed more rapidly, and can be shifted as commuting patterns change. Richmond has to decide what its economic priorities are, and then choose accordingly.”
The challenges involved with improving public transportation in Richmond, including “racial and economic segregation, spread out development and budget constraints” are common among Southern cities, Berube explained. However, some managed to overcome these obstacles. “In terms of investing in transit and creating regional constituency, New Orleans is a good example,” said Berube.
Berube suggested government officials focus on “filling the gaps” to provide better access to transportation and jobs in suburban areas. He also emphasized that policy changes go beyond transportation. “Our study found that how well transit serves a region has at least as much to do with decisions around land use, housing, and economic development as it does with how much a region spends on transit,” said Berube.
He continued, “The region’s larger vision will ultimately dictate whether it can be well served by transit, or whether it will remain on its current path, as one of the weakest in the nation for transit performance.”
Lastly, Berube asked those in attendance to employ available technologies to make more informed transportation decisions. As a part of their study, The Brookings Institute created an interactive map of Richmond Transit coverage that is available online.
Berube advised Richmond officials to ask themselves, “how can we be the capital of Virginia, one of the most economically successful states, without a vision for what public transportation will be in twenty years?” He added, “Not having this conversation is a recipe for economic stagnation.”
Photo by: taberandrew