T4America Blog

News, press releases and other updates

To connect people to jobs and services, we need to measure what matters: people

Today we largely decide which transportation projects to build and where to build them based on how much delay vehicles experience, while entirely ignoring everyone not in a car in the first place. By ignoring walking, biking, or taking transit, we’re ignoring the impacts on everyone not using a car, particularly low-income persons, people of color, and older adults.

It’s “Connecting people to jobs and services week” here at Transportation for America. All week we’ll be exploring why improving access should be the goal of the federal transportation program—not vehicle speed.

A century ago, we didn’t have GPS and GIS mapping systems. Google Maps on a handheld computer (i.e. your cell phone) that would allow you to instantly look up directions to anywhere with any mode was still in the realm of science fiction. Given those limitations, when the country started spending billions to build a national network of highways—and a bunch of streets to feed cars onto those highways—the easiest thing to measure was vehicle delay. Free flowing traffic = good; delay = bad. If cars were getting stuck in traffic, it was a sign that we needed to build more or wider roads, or redesign an intersection to improve traffic flow.

This was the most sophisticated proxy for success we could manage for many decades but this myopic focus on vehicle speed also ignored anyone outside a car and it actively undermined other transportation options. People walking or rolling were relegated to sidewalks (if they existed) or banished from the street altogether. Transit was now being mired in traffic and wide, free-flowing roads lured those who could afford a car onto the open road. And if you happened to live in the path of a future freeway—a path often selected because an area was deemed undesirable based on racist redlining policies—your home or business was razed. What remained of formerly walkable and vibrant Black neighborhoods were suddenly cut off from the rest of the community to make room for cars.

None of these people outside of personal vehicles are considered or counted when we use vehicle delay to measure the effectiveness of our entire transportation system. The ability of people walking, rolling, biking, or taking transit to get where they needed to go is sacrificed for people who can afford and operate a car.

This old measure hasn’t scaled very well, either. As more and more Americans began driving, traffic became more common. We hollowed out city centers in a quest to keep cars moving and then give them a place to park. Today, we still hear calls to widen roads to keep traffic moving. The problem, as it’s presented, isn’t that we have too many cars, but not enough road space for all those cars.

With technology available now, we can figure out where people are trying to go, we can measure how easy or hard it is to get there, and we can do this for every mode of transportation, not just cars. We call this measuring access and using it to evaluate how our transportation system is performing and to decide what projects to build next would make for a much more equitable transportation system.

Access to a better future

If you don’t own a car and you rely on walking, biking, or transit, your needs are largely ignored under the current paradigm. If you don’t want to spend $9,000 a year to own and maintain a car, improving your access to jobs and services is secondary to the needs of people driving. If you can’t drive, for whatever reason, you can only hope that there are viable options to get you where you want to go.

Using access as the primary consideration to evaluate projects may show that building and repairing sidewalks in a community would dramatically improve access to jobs and services for more residents than redesigning one intersection for cars (and for the same amount of money). It may show that a new bus line would make it easier for residents in a low-income community to access healthcare. It may show that filling a gap in a bike lane network would improve the ease and safety of reaching the closest grocery store from neighborhoods in a food desert. Or it may show that the length of a bus ride to school could be cut in half with a short connector road. Using access to guide our transportation investments may show these things, but we wouldn’t know because most transportation decisions focus only on the delay of cars alone.

That’s why our third principle for transportation policy is connecting people to jobs and services. Instead of using an outdated proxy that gives us an incomplete and indirect view of whether or not the system is actually working to get people to their destinations, let’s measure the actual thing that proxy was attempting to measure. Congress should direct USDOT and states to determine how well the transportation system connects people to jobs and services, and prioritize projects that will improve those connections.

Measuring access alone won’t erase all the structural issues that disadvantage low-income communities and communities of color, but it will solve one of those issues. By measuring access we can begin to make sure that everyone regardless of income, age, race, or ability can get where they need to go by whatever mode they choose.