Fighting Transportation Deserts

Nov 29, 2017 by

Communities of all sizes—cities, suburbs, and rural areas—can suffer from transportation “deserts”—places where the only way in and out of the community is by car, and where residents are often cut off from easy access to other parts of their city or region due to the impractical design of road and highway infrastructure around the area.

Transportation deserts lead to limited mobility for many of the people who live in them, and communities located inside transportation deserts often become victim to economic blight and the many societal ills that accompany it.

Limited mobility means a limited life. It cuts people off from jobs, education opportunities, services, and community connections.

Public transit agencies work hard to fight transportation deserts, despite having to work with limited budgets and conflicting infrastructure priorities in many communities. In recent years, we’ve seen many innovative strategies emerge that are striking a blow against these deserts and improving mobility for at-risk communities.

Different Solutions for Different Communities

Public transit systems are locally operated, allowing them to respond to local needs. While the federal government provides critically important funding, local systems and regional transit authorities (RTAs) set priorities and guide projects to meet the needs of their communities. Below are some great examples of how these systems fight to restore mobility to areas that qualify as transportation deserts.

    • On-Demand Service in Rural Texas — In the Lone Star State’s many rural areas, it isn’t always feasible to provide regularly scheduled, or “fixed-route” bus service. Instead, the state’s Rural Transit Districts (RTDs) have developed other options, including on-demand public transportation services, usually provided by vans or small buses. By calling the local public transit service about 24 hours in advance, any person in an RTD can schedule a ride pick-up, with trips costing as little as $1.
    • Neighborhood Shuttles in Washington, DC — Though our nation’s capital has a strong public transportation system, there are still several neighborhoods where residents can’t easily access rideshare services. In response, the city has partnered with a local cab company to provide neighborhood shuttles that connect riders to grocery stores, services, and the city’s Metro subway system.
    • New Bus Routes in Houston and Columbus — In Houston, the METRO transit system reduced transportation deserts by totally redesigning its bus routes in 2015. By converting from hub-and-spoke bus routes to a grid system, METRO immediately put an additional 600,000 people within a half-mile of bus service. The bus system now connects about 1 million people with 1 million jobs. Columbus, Ohio, also recently implemented whole new bus routes, which put an additional 110,000 jobs within a five-minute walk of public transit.
  • Partnering with Rideshare — In St. Petersburg and Clearwater (Fla.), Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) was the first system in the nation to fight transportation deserts by partnering with a rideshare company. PSTA’s bus routes left many area residents more than a mile from public transit access, but simply adding more routes wasn’t feasible from a fiscal perspective. The system partnered with rideshare company Uber and a local taxi company to provide rides to and from bus stops within two underserved areas. Once a rider can reach a bus stop, the entire region becomes accessible via the regular bus service.

Public transit systems in every part of the country should have the opportunity to close mobility gaps by implementing new ideas, leveraging emerging technologies, and expanding services. Reducing transportation deserts improves people’s lives and strengthens communities, which ultimately benefits everyone through stronger economies, reduced burdens on taxpayer-supported programs, and more.

Public transportation has been making progress in recent years — and Congress should support this momentum. We need big thinking and smart funding from federal leaders, not a retreat from investing in our transportation future.

We welcome your comments!