Gotta go to work, gotta have a job

The series of tubes spat out a couple of reports this week about employment and access to transit.  Both of them contain useful specifics about Twin Cities employment patterns, but seem to disagree whether our region is keeping up with other regions in terms of accessing jobs through transit.

The first report was put out by the Center for Transit Oriented Development, which not long ago produced a practical guide to increasing walkability in certain Twin Cities neighborhoods.  Their new white paper has the simple title “Transit-Oriented Development and Employment” and may be most useful as a guide to research detailing the relationship between transit and employment geography for those of us who don’t have the time or money to read the scholarly journals.  The paper also contains a brief case study of 3 metros:  Phoenix, Atlanta and the Twin Cities.

Brookings begs to differ

As this graphic shows, Twin Citians on transit can access a pretty high number of jobs relative to some other American cities.  This even though CTOD rates our transit system as medium, despite the fact that it will be barely longer than Phoenix’s 20 mile “small” system even after Central is finished, at which point its 24 miles will be half the 49 miles of Atlanta’s MARTA, also rated “medium.”  They apparently are counting the 12 Northstar trains a day towards our total, even though they provide less than 1% of the system’s total weekday trips (contrast with Hiawatha, which provides 11%).

But the map shows that the Twin Cities’ soon-to-be light rail system will provide access to 19.6% of the region’s jobs.  While that seems low, it’s higher than Atlanta’s 13% of jobs accessible by MARTA, and comparable to the share of jobs accessible by LA’s patchwork of higher-capacity transit systems.  And it’s a good sign considering Hiawatha and Central barely reach outside of the central cities, and even miss employment clusters inside the central cities.

Anyway, this paper proves that transit advocates have discovered the suburbs, only 20 years after Edge City.  Having grown up in the Southdale area, I can say it’s none too soon.  They don’t go into too much detail, but the clusters CTOD identifies aren’t too different from those that Orfield and Luce identified in Region.  Orfield and Luce described their methodology thusly:

Employment centers were defined as contiguous TAZ’s with greater than average numbers of jobs per square mile and total employment exceeding 1,800 jobs.  Large job agglomerations like those in the centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul were divided into multiple employment centers based on job densities in different parts of the larger clusters.

The cool thing about these employment centers is that they mostly cling to highways, a.k.a available right-of-way.  Of course, that springs out of the shitty thing about them, that they sprawled in response to auto-dependence, as a result of constraints on growth by zoning, and without the guidance of regional planning.  But it’s possible that some day, cooler heads will conquer the capitol, and transit may be expanded.  If that ever happens, it would be a good idea follow the advice of the CTOD and aim for suburban job centers.

Which brings us to the other report, from Brookings, which maintains that transit access to jobs in the Twin Cities is average for the USA.  This report has taken a beating in the blogosphere, which I think is not surprising, considering the report looks at transit a little differently than the average transit rider probably looks at it.  That’s because it’s instead supposed to represent how the average American looks at transit, basically from the viewpoint, “how am I going to get to work?”

According to Brookings’ ranking, the Twin Cities has the 39th best transit access to jobs in the nation.  That might surprise some politicians, who don’t care anyway, but seems about right to me.  It’s when I start looking at the composite rankings that up becomes down for me.  First off, Brookings claims that 67% of working-age residents are near a transit stop.  67%?  How can that be when most bus lines don’t extend outside Minneapolis and St Paul?  Well, the fine print reveals that Brookings looked at bus routes that operate during rush hour, when commuter buses extend the web of transit lines by many times their midday size.

The rush hour focus also explains the next Wonderland metric, median waiting time, which is 11.6 minutes for the Twin Cities, 1.5 minutes more than the national average.  This actually also reflects the size of the commuter bus net in Minneapolis-St Paul – if commuter buses were excluded, the median wait would probably actually be shorter at peak, when several routes have 5-7 minute headways.

The commuter bus focus also explains the dismal but average showing of the Twin Cities in the last metric: percent of jobs that can be reached by transit in 90 minutes.  Because our bus system focuses on the downtowns, and so many commuter buses travel long distances to get there, but skip over jobs that might be along their route, it makes sense that so few jobs are reachable.  So while cities with smaller transit systems may rate the same in this metric, the Twin Cities’ comparatively larger bus system does no better because it is so narrowly focused.  (As a Downtown resident, I ain’t complaining.)

The Brookings reportadd  an economic layer to this already complex cake by considering the income level of the people with access to transit as well as the wage level of the jobs accessible by transit.  I wonder then why they didn’t find a way to factor in the non-peak transit coverage crucial to non-9 to 5ers.  Transit access to jobs is hugely important, and suburban job centers may be the next big transit growth market, but non-peak travel seems more important to transit’s core customers and is also less expensive to provide.

At least it’s something to think about while waiting for the bus.



One comment on “Gotta go to work, gotta have a job

  1. For “reports” coming out of the Brookings Institute, my initial reaction is to A) smirk and B) ignore it. However, in and of itself, the question of “how do I get to work?” is a reasonable. However, it is intentionally misleading on the part of the Brookings Institute to judge transit systems exclusively on this question.

    At times I feel that the Brookings Institute has started to operate similar to Wendell Cox and Joel Kotin. They will produce a “report” that is well-researched and has a lot of numbers, graphs and full-page maps. The problem is that the methodology is completely out of whack (read: bias) and the conclusion turns out to be something like “Tulsa and Houston are America’s greatest, most liveable awesome cities” … The mainstream news media reads the first two paragraphs, runs the headline, has a neat slideshow on their website and doesn’t think once to critique the findings.

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