Addressing the issue of transit deserts

Addressing the issue of transit deserts

  • transit
  • health
  • wellbeing
  • transit deserts
  • access
  • mta
  • cdc

While New York City is known for its expansive 24-hour subway system, there are still many parts of the city that have limited transit access.

Take, for example, Hunts Point and Port Morris - separated by the Bruckner Expressway from the rest of the South Bronx and the nearest subway stations. Subway deserts, as they’ve come to be known in NYC, are areas where slow, lumbering buses with infrequent service are the only form of public transportation.

For low-income residents, who cannot afford a car, the bus is the only form of available transport for significant distances. In these areas, many available jobs are greater than a 60-minute commute, further contributing to high levels of under and unemployment. According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Hunts Point and Port Morris have disproportionately high unemployment rates - sometimes as much as 16 per cent, which is four times greater than the citywide average.

Here's why: when people can’t easily commute from their neighborhoods, they’re less able to find or keep a good job. And the poverty this causes often has a cascading effect on health, wellbeing, education opportunities, and access to healthy food, further hindering the ability to find work.

So, what can be done to reverse the effects of transit deserts on low-income communities?

In recent years, I have watched the rapid growth of services such as Via, Chariot, and Bridj, which have the potential to increase access with minimal investment in transit infrastructure. These services offer dynamic, flexible, on-demand transportation options that aren’t governed by a fixed route or a rigid schedule. This provides people who work outside the central business district and/or typical work hours a potentially faster transit option.

Imagine you live in Hunts Point but work a late-night shift in Highbridge, to the northwest. You whip out your phone, use an app to ‘call’ a bus, and it arrives shortly thereafter. Your driver picks up a few more passengers en route, before dropping you at your destination. A trip on traditional transit might have taken you up to 60 minutes, imposing an enormous burden on your time, safety, or ability to make the trip.

These types of flexible, on-demand transit services have the potential to transform how people in subway deserts, and everywhere else, travel, increasing access to jobs and other services. Ideally, these services will provide first-last mile and inter-borough trips – currently underserved by the MTA system – and develop partnerships and price incentives to encourage use of these services as an extension of the public transit network.

These types of flexible, on-demand transit services have the potential to transform transit deserts, and improve access to good jobs and other services.

Most importantly, providing access to these new transit modes creates new opportunities for how and when we travel, and open doors to new economic opportunities, and ultimately improves community health and wellbeing.

-- Sam

Sam Schwartz is CEO of Sam Schwartz - a firm that specializes in transportation planning and engineering. He also writes columns on traffic for The New York Daily News, the NY Downtown Express and blogs for Engineering News Record. Previously, Sam was New York City’s Traffic Commissioner and the Chief Engineer of the NYC Department of Transportation. Sam specializes in creative problem-solving for seemingly intractable situations and is expert at getting people out of their cars and into other forms of transportation. 

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