How Public Bus Routes Can Deconcentrate Poverty and Promote Equity

Initiatives that aim to address geographically concentrated poverty often focus on providing affordable housing. While such housing projects may increase quality of life for residents, they are unlikely to reduce the concentration of poverty in particular areas. New research suggests that a more effective approach to changing the geography of poverty requires the expansion of effective public transportation systems. For those who depend on public transit to commute to work, the proximity of bus stops and train stations can make the difference between a community that is affordable to live in and one that is not. More robust public transit options can help to deconcentrate poverty and promote equity and inclusivity across different areas.

In a paper titled “Public transit access and the changing spatial distribution of poverty,” Pathak, Wyczalkowski and Huang analyze the link between public bus routes and the geography of poverty in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Using tract-level U.S. census data from 1970 to 2010, the authors found that the presence of a public bus route in Atlanta’s suburban census tracts is associated with a 2.32 percent increase in the poverty rate on average, compared to census tracts without bus routes. Public bus routes attract low-income residents because they offer an affordable means of transportation.

In order to establish a causal relationship between bus routes and poverty rates, the authors controlled for a variety of factors that could plausibly influence poverty rates, including housing quality and the proportion of manufacturing employment. Yet, even after these factors were accounted for, there remained other challenges in verifying that the observed pattern between bus routes and poverty rates was not simply correlative. For example, what if an important neighborhood variable was overlooked? What if the bus routes were established specifically to serve low-income communities? To address these types of questions and to form a causal conclusion, the authors performed several robustness checks, including an instrumental variable regression analysis.

The purpose of conducting this regression analysis was to identify a variable that accurately anticipated the locations of public transit stops but was not itself linked to poverty levels. For their instrumental variable regression, the authors chose to study the relationship between poverty rates and Atlanta’s (now-demolished) streetcar system because many of the streetcar lines were replaced by public bus routes. After isolating other variables, they found that the presence of a former streetcar route in a census tract was not linked to higher poverty rates. This is not exactly surprising, as the privately-owned streetcar routes were not built to serve low-income populations but instead to provide profits to investors.

What do the findings of the instrumental variable regression analysis mean for the study? If public bus routes in many cases were established on former streetcar lines, but those lines themselves were not intentionally built in poor neighborhoods, it rules out the possibility that the bus routes were mapped specifically to serve low-income individuals and strengthens the argument that the bus lines themselves lead to increased poverty rates in the surrounding neighborhoods.

While other studies have identified a causal relationship between public transit access and poverty within cities, this study establishes that a similar effect may be observed in suburban areas. This finding is important because it suggests that public transportation can help to reduce the concentration of poverty by making suburban communities more accessible to low-income populations. It also exposes the shortfalls of a narrow understanding of poverty as an entirely place-based phenomenon that requires place-based solutions. The study shows that actions taken to strengthen public transit access can help impoverished individuals and families not by revitalizing their current communities, but instead by providing the mobility necessary to ensure they are not trapped in those communities.

Article source: Pathak, Rahul, Christopher K. Wyczalkowski, and Xi Huang. “Public transit access and the changing spatial distribution of poverty.” Regional Science and Urban Economics. (2017).

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Andrew Miller

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