94th out of 100 Isn’t That Bad: Transportation Policy Hinders the Future of Richmond
Recently, the Brookings Institute released a report entitled, “Where the Jobs Are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit.” The report analyzed data from 371 transit providers in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas across two categories. For the first category, transit coverage – the share of metropolitan jobs that are served by public transit – the Richmond region ranked 94th, with only 48.9 percent of metro area jobs served by public transit. In the second category, labor access rate – the share of the metro population that the typical job can reach in 90 minutes via public transit – the Richmond region ranked 82nd, with only 16.2 percent of the metro population having access to the typical job. The report further dissects transit coverage along city and suburban boundaries. Not surprisingly, in the Richmond region, transit coverage serves 97.8 percent of the city population within our metro area, but only 29 percent of the suburban population.
The report calls Richmond out in comparison with the city of San Jose, CA (ranked fourth in transit coverage). Transit in both metro areas covers 97 percent of the jobs in the city. The difference is that San Jose’s transit lines extend beyond the city core, offering service to 84 percent of its suburban jobs, while Richmond’s service, with few exceptions, ends at the city line. In an increasingly economically competitive world, transit infrastructure is a critical component to lure not only talented workers to high-paying jobs, but also to shuttle mid- to low-wage workers around the region as efficiently as possible. In fact, CNBC just downgraded Virginia to third among the best states in which to do business largely due to its transportation infrastructure. Within this category alone, Virginia slipped from 10th to 33rd.
The take away from the Brookings report is not that public transit in the Richmond region is inadequate (it is), or that it is hindering the economic competitiveness of the region (it is), but rather that our public transportation policy is a continuation of the very same discriminatory housing policies that have isolated poor minorities in the city, far from jobs, quality education, healthcare, and fresh food. In short, we continue to have a serious race problem in this region. There is no other reason as to why public transit access is so limited in the regions’ suburban areas. The arguments that it is not cost effective or there is lack of demand are just more appropriate ways of saying “We don’t want poor, inner-city African Americans in our communities.”
Decisions based on racism have no place anywhere, especially local government. If there are jobs in the suburbs, and there are workers in the city, doesn’t it make sense to somehow connect the two of them? More importantly, doesn’t it make sense to allow people to move to neighborhoods that are close to where they work? When people are working, they buy things, which mean things are sold. When things are sold, taxes are paid, and when taxes are paid, local governments bring in more money to provide services to their residents who benefit, whether it is from the hiring of a new police officer, having that pothole fixed, or building a new bus stop.
Neighbor opposition to affordable housing developments is far too common in this region. Thinly veiled arguments such as “It’ll bring too much traffic,” or “It’ll change the character of the neighborhood,” are just another way of saying, “We don’t want those types of people living here.” In fact, a proposed rental development was just shot down in western Henrico County due to community opposition, despite the fact that rents were to average $1,400 a month and prospective tenants were going to be thoroughly screened. Unfortunately, the word “rental” has become synonymous with “trouble,” much to the detriment of our region.
Making the Richmond region an economically competitive place has more to do with assuring that all of the region’s residents maintain a high quality of life than anything else. In order to ensure that quality of life, there need to be deliberate efforts taken to overcome discriminatory transit and housing policies in order to allow people the choice as to where they want to live and work, as opposed to limiting their access to desirable neighborhoods or job opportunities through discriminatory policies. We can begin by outlawing location-based discrimination for affordable rental housing. We can also put pressure on elected officials and the Board of Directors of the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) to better serve our region’s residents.
This is a guest post by Brian Koziol. Brian is the Housing Policy and Research Analyst at HOME. He holds a Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Commonwealth University. He has lived in Richmond for the past nine years and patiently awaits the return of Rainbow Donuts.