Poverty as a math problem: Public transportation neither convenient nor affordable

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth column in a six-part series under the theme “Poverty is a math problem (and so much more).” 

It’s often hard for low-income folks to get to their jobs, or even to grocery stores or daycare centers. Some must take two or three buses — that is, if public transportation is even available.  — Tami Luhby

Poor people’s inability to access jobs and services is an important element of the social exclusion that defines urban poverty. Urban transport policy can attenuate this poverty, both by contributing to economic growth and by introducing a conscious poverty reduction to focus the infrastructure investment, to public transport service planning, and to fare-subsidy and financing strategies. There is a rich agenda of urban transport policies that are both pro-growth and pro-poor, yet which are consistent with the fiscal capabilities of even the poorest countries. — World Bank


Over the past three installments of this series I have focused on three poverty-related math problems (education, employment, and housing) and the ways in which they foster and perpetuate poverty. Of course, these three issues, among several other subject areas, are often front and center whenever discussions about poverty arise.

Still, there is one critical topic that seems to receive short shrift during these conversations. That topic is transportation, or what the Center for Public Justice’s Jenny Hyde refers to as “the overlooked poverty problem.”

In recent years the relationship between public transportation infrastructure and poverty has been bolstered by new research, including studies from the World Bank, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Harvard University, and NYU. Likewise, The Atlantic, The New York Times, CNN Money, and the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, among others, have illustrated this link.

At Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, our Car Ownership Program has worked to address the transportation problem since 1988 by helping low-income households obtain affordable transportation through low-interest auto loans. Research demonstrates, time and time again, that reliable transportation better enables households to secure and maintain quality employment, increase household income, and more easily meet the educational, health care, and child care needs of their family members.

That said, while Community Action’s Car Ownership Program makes an indelible impact in the lives of many, the current scope of this program and others like it is not enough to adequately address the transportation crisis that continues to plague low-income neighborhoods.

In her 2015 essay “Stranded: How America’s Failing Public Transportation Increases Inequality,” The Atlantic’s Gillian B. White keenly describes how shortfalls in transportation infrastructure disparately affect people along racial and economic lines. She writes that “Access to just about everything associated with upward mobility and economic progress — jobs, quality food and goods (at reasonable prices), health care and schooling — relies on the ability to get around in an efficient way, and for an affordable price.”

Furthermore, according to economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, the relationship between economic and geographic mobility has become so strong that they cite it as the primary obstacle in the ability of low-income households to overcome the vicious cycle of poverty. For far too many American citizens, the lack of efficient, high-quality public transportation has detrimental effects on their abilities to access employment and educational opportunities, nutritional and health-related needs, economic supports, and other household essentials.

I am reminded once again of legendary author, activist and social critic James Baldwin who famously wrote, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” Our transportation math problem simply adds to that burden.

Statistics from the American Public Transportation Association reveal that nearly 60 percent of Americans who use public transportation are people of color, and approximately 66 percent are classified as low-income. Two-thirds of those relying on public transportation use it between five and seven days per week. Another 60 percent exclusively use public transit to get to work, and another 50 percent must transfer at least once to reach their destination.

If that weren’t enough, low-income households in America (many of which are already housing cost-burdened) spend on average 30 percent of their total household income on transportation needs. This compares to 15 percent for middle class households and only 10 percent for upper class households.

Many among us have declared that in order for America to ever come close to something that resembles economic equality and justice, we must properly invest in the basics such as education, employment training, affordable housing, preventative health, and infrastructure including public transportation.

Yet, as Washington, D.C. Council Member Jack Evans notes, “Public transportation only works if it’s convenient and affordable.” To which Jenny Hyde adds that for many low-income Americans “it seems to be neither.”


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104



2 Comments on “Poverty as a math problem: Public transportation neither convenient nor affordable”

  1. If it’s a math problem, what is the math solution?

    What are the unit economics of different public transportation systems and where are they viable?

    Would love to know your thoughts on how public transportation is funded and operated, and how we should improve it.

    1. Michael:

      Thank you taking the time to reply to my column on public transportation and low-income people (published by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder on October 25, 2017). You raise some rather compelling questions regarding the viability and operation of public transportation. I must readily admit that I am no expert on the subject of public transportation so I don’t have a neat and tidy solution to offer at this time.

      However, as a non-profit executive in the Twin Cities for over 35 years, I feel it is important for the general public to understand that there are capacity and efficiency gaps in our transportation systems when it comes to serving low-income communities. These gaps can often create financial burdens for people who can least afford them. My hope is that by raising awareness about this reality I have motivated community members to think about what we can do differently in the Twin Cities to improve our public transportation system so it better meet the needs of everyone. Likewise, I hope that people begin to understand the complexities surrounding poverty and the many, many hidden barriers that make it difficult for low-income people to achieve financial stability.

      I would welcome any thoughts or ideas you might have about how to cost-effectively improve public transportation in the Metro area so it better serves all who live here. Thanks again for your time and interest. It is very much appreciated.


      Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.

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