Transportation and poverty in the suburbs

In The Atlantic, Alana Semuels writes about poor families living in the Atlanta suburbs – one of the many suburban US areas where a growing proportion of residents are struggling to get by. And because poverty has historically been concentrated in cities, that’s where the infrastructure and resources that help low-income residents tend to be located. Suburban residents often find it much harder to access assistance, or to get around if they don't have a car. (Details on trends and local specifics are available from the Brookings Institution.) For instance, Semuels notes that both jobs and social services may be hard to reach in areas where public transit is limited. One example:

Gary Shelt, 52, just moved to a Norcross extended-stay motel where he pays $253 a week from DeKalb County, a more urban area inside the 285 beltway in Atlanta. I met him as he waited for a bus alongside a six-lane Gwinnett road, his bike leaning up against the bus shelter. Shelt, who makes a living doing odd jobs repairing homes and cleaning buildings, just moved to Norcross a few weeks ago because he’d heard there was more work out there.

He hadn’t anticipated that transit would be such a problem. He’d biked to the bus stop, and planned take a bus to MARTA, the Atlanta-area transit system, to go meet a client who wanted help installing a television. But the bus was already 45 minutes late.

Inadequate public transportation in the Atlanta suburbs also featured in a Politico Magazine piece by Rebecca Burns last year (I wrote about it here). Burns writes:

As affluent young professionals and older empty nesters flock back into cities across the country in search of better lifestyles, the suburbs left behind are increasingly stuck with a demographic—the working poor and struggling middle class—they were never built to accommodate. Many of these people don’t have cars, and many of them can’t even easily make it to the bus. In fact, the Brookings Institute has found, fewer than 50 percent of poor suburbanites in metro Atlanta even have access to transit, and what they have is limited. Bus service in Clayton County, which has a 21 percent poverty rate, was canceled outright in 2010. There is no regular mass transit in exurban counties like Paulding or Bartow. In Cherokee County, there are just two fixed bus routes along with a few park-and-ride connections to the Xpress regional bus system, which brings suburban commuters to downtown and midtown Atlanta. If you don’t live or work near one of these nodes, you’re out of luck.

In Cobb County, there’s no bus service at all on Sundays. Cobb Community Transit operates a system that is tiny given the immense size of the county—just 20 routes compared with almost 200 operated by MARTA, the transit agency that serves the city of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties, and also operates a rail network. The bus routes that do operate in Cobb are limited; some run along main commercial arteries (like busy Cobb Parkway where MUST’s headquarters is located), and others are rush-hour-only, taking commuters from Cobb to downtown Atlanta and back.

One good piece of news in Semuels' story is that Clayton County is now reversing the transit shutdown Burns described in her piece. Semuels explains:

Clayton County, which is just south of Atlanta’s city center, had shut down its public transit in 2010 as a result of budget shortfalls. But the Partnership for Southern Equity and other local groups advocated better transit, and in the elections of November 2014, voters in Clayton County overwhelmingly approved a sales-tax increase to fund the expansion of MARTA, Atlanta’s transit system, into the county. It’s the first new county in the Atlanta region to add MARTA service since 1971.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the county’s sales tax will increase from seven to eight percent, which will allow funding for limited bus service to start in March and full bus service next year. The rest of the funds will be set aside for future high-capacity service, such as commuter rail or bus rapid transit.

It’s great to see the Clayton County residents have recognized the importance of investing in a public-transportation system that will allow for those who can’t drive to get to school and jobs. I hope other jurisdictions are coming to similar conclusions about the essential role of public transportation in fighting poverty.

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