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Two bills put “access” at the heart of transportation policy

For too long, the focus of the federal transportation program has been vehicle speed, not helping Americans access jobs, schools, grocery stores and more. It’s time to focus our funding on improving people’s access to jobs and services—and U.S. Rep. Chuy García’s (IL-4) two new bills will do exactly that. 

An “L” underpass in Chicago.

Transportation is fundamentally a means for getting people and goods where they need to go. Making sure you get your children to school on time, and yourself to work; having a safe, convenient and affordable way to reach grocery stores and healthcare. 

But our federal transportation program doesn’t make improving these connections its goal. U.S. transportation policy focuses on avoiding any delay to vehicles, making our roads wider and our communities more spread out and disconnected in the process. As a result our transportation system is in crisis. Americans are stuck in congestion on crumbling roads and transit systems, often forced to travel further and further because our system fails to provide safe and convenient choices other than a car trip. 

That’s where two new bills from Representative Jesús “Chuy” García (IL-04) come in. Today, Rep. García—along with his two co-chairs of the Future of Transportation Caucus—introduced the Improving Access to Jobs Act and Improving Access to Services Act to Congress with 12 co-sponsors, including Representatives Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Mark Takano (CA-41), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-03), Steve Cohen (TN-09), Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), Nanette Diaz Barragán (CA-44), Bennie G. Thompson (MS-02), Jahana Hayes (CT-05), Bobby L. Rush (IL-01), Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-02), and Darren Soto (FL-9). 

These two bills would finally align federal spending with how people intuitively think about transportation: whether or not they can access their destinations. 

“Our transportation systems are failing Americans who face growing congestion, roads and transit systems in disrepair, and long-standing inequities that disproportionately hurt marginalized communities,” said Rep. García. “Any future transportation policies must make smarter investments to improve access, cut travel times, and lower the financial barriers to mobility for all.”

The two bills will create performance measures that make improving access the goal of federal transportation policy, and hold states accountable to improving access by all modes of travel. The bills would prevent metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) from increasing the ratio of automobile to non-automobile access in urbanized areas, empowering MPOs and states to balance transit, bike, and pedestrian investments alongside new roadway investments over an entire region. This would guarantee that any new roadway investments do not degrade transit, bike, and pedestrian access. 

If states fail to improve access, they must invest 10 percent of federal transportation funds apportioned to a state from the previous fiscal year into efforts to improve access overall. This requirement is in effect until the Secretary of Transportation certifies that a state is in compliance.

This intuitive concept—prioritizing access, not speed—is revolutionary in the world of transportation policy, which adopted speed as a metric for success before we had technologies like cloud computing and GIS that make measuring access possible. Some states already use access to allocate state transportation funding, like Virginia DOT. 

Two bills, one goal

There’s an important reason why Rep. García introduced these transformative performance measures as two seperate bills, though: People perceive commutes to work and trips to services differently. This has implications for transportation planning. 

People generally have a higher tolerance for longer commutes to work. Tolerance is lower for long trips to services—like grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, recreation, and more—because they are often linked in one trip, rather than multiple round-trip journeys to and from homes. So while people might consider a 30-minute commute to be manageable, an area that’s 30-minutes one-way to the grocery store qualifies as a food desert—hence the need for different performance measures. 

Together, these two bills are one huge step towards prioritizing access in federal transportation legislation. But there are additional actions the federal government can take to truly make access a priority. T4America has called for the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a national assessment of access to jobs and services and set national goals for improvement; to phase out outdated metrics such as level of service; and to provide accessibility data to states, MPOs, and local communities. (You can read our full recommendations here.

Proposing a new way of doing things is never easy, particularly when it challenges how America fundamentally measures the success of our transportation system. We thank Rep. García for leading this effort toward a better, more accessible future.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Two bills put “access” at the heart of transportation policy | Public Transit Blog

  2. Mary Ann Kaufman

    8 months ago

    This is good news, but how does this work with existing land use and how can land use aid transportation access in the future? Say that you have a small older bedroom community that is 30 miles from town. The grocery store is in the larger urban town not in a commmunity of 500? Would it make sense to put in a twice a day shuttle service and give incentives for a small grocer to start business there?

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