How Far Can You Get in the Suburbs Without a Car?

  • 2
  • February 27, 2014

By Barbara Ray

Living in the suburbs without a car can be a problem. Though many suburban communities have bus or train access into the central city in the morning and back again at night during the work week, if your job is anywhere besides the central city or you work odd hours, you may be out of luck.

New tools from Mapnificent are pretty revealing.

The interactive mapping site outlines the area reachable by bus or train within a set time from any starting point—a public transit catchment area, if you will. Drop a pin on a map anywhere in a metro area, choose the time frame (within 30 minutes or 60 minutes, say), pick a time of day or day of the week, and it’ll show where you can go in that time frame using public transportation.

Because most low-wage workers are the ones working off-shift, part-time, and weekend jobs, I was curious to see how easy it is for them to get to work on public transit. So, on the assumption that airports employ a lot of lower-wage workers, I entered 60 minutes and dropped my pin on airports in Houston, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City. All three are experiencing strong growth in population and jobs. Many of the lower-wage jobs in these areas are filled by recent immigrants, who tend to be major users of public transit.

Bad news. If you work at the George Bush International Airport  in Houston, you can’t get very far in an hour on public transport—and forget about weekends. That’s probably why only 1 percent of suburban commuters use public transit. (The percentage may be low, but that’s still 20,000 people.)

Take a look:



Salt Lake City is a little better. You can get almost anywhere in the metro area, except south of I-215, within an hour, even during off-peak hours. A recent report by Brookings scholar Adie Tomer and coauthors backs this up. In “Missed Opportunity,” they find that nearly 60 percent of all metro area jobs are reachable via transit in 90 minutes, much better than the 100-metro average of 30 percent.

In Atlanta, if you live in the southern tier, you can get to an airport job on public transit within an hour—from College Park or East Point, for example (but not Forest Park). If you live in a narrow band north of the city (up by the I-85 corridor), you might also be able to make it—if the connection gods are with you. “Missed Opportunity” shows that only 38 percent of working-age residents have access to public transit, and those residents can reach just 22 percent of area jobs  on average in a 90 minute commute. Those shares drop even further for suburban residents.

In New Orleans, Katy Reckdahl, writing in The Advocate, found that many low-income families in suburban Jefferson Parish, where jobs are migrating, were struggling with both the costs and headaches of transit. If a resident of Marrero wanted to get downtown, for example, “she would have to hop on a Jefferson Express Transit bus and pay one fare that would get her to the city. Then she’d have to pay another fee for the New Orleans bus, run by the Regional Transit Authority. There are no transfers across the two systems.”

Jefferson Transit Director Ryan Brown told Reckdahl that he’d be in favor of a more regional approach, but because the suburban and city lines are two separate entities, allowing transfers between them would mean “everyone would lose money.”

New Orleans is not the only place facing a lack of regional coordination. Detroit, for example, is the only metro area out of the top 30 largest without a regional transit system, and the only airport where you can land but not take transit to your destination. Yet transportation, by its very nature, is a regional issue, and it demands regional solutions. Detroit in fact is taking up the charge, having recently formed the Regional Transit Authority for Southeastern Michigan. The plan is to link Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties in southeast Michigan with a system of new rapid bus transit, and dedicated lanes for new express bus service across the county lines and to and from the airport. Funding, however, is not yet secured. The model they’re aiming for is Denver, which passed a regional tax for transit that qualified the area for federal matching funds. The result was a “complete renaissance in transit,” said John Hertel, the director of Detroit’s suburban bus system.

Regional solutions should also accommodate the rising demand for off-peak transit and intra-suburban routes. Efforts like this one in Denver to expand light rail and other transit options are great, but ideally they should also expand their hours of operation if they are to meet the growing demand for off-peak service. Doing so, according to Atlantic Cities, doesn’t cost any more. In fact, making service more regular might be cheaper. Interestingly, adding more off-peak routes also increases peak ridership. “If people know a train can take you back anytime you need, they’re more willing to take the train in during rush hour in the morning,” says Eric Jaffe writing in Atlantic Cities.

Understanding the emerging needs of low-income suburban residents to get to and from jobs no matter what the hours and where they are will be imperative if transit is to be effective.

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