How better transportation can fight income inequality

As strategies to combat income inequality make their way into the national dialogue and into the talking points of presidential hopefuls, one crucial factor for economic opportunity isn’t getting nearly enough attention: transportation.

Too often discussions of our nation’s transportation infrastructure and rising income disparities remain siloed, but these two issues are indelibly linked: long-term investment in transportation is a critical part of increasing economic opportunity and reducing poverty.  

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As a recent New York Times article highlighted, a lack of reliable and efficient transportation is often an almost insurmountable barrier for low-income people trying to build better lives for themselves and their children. In a national, long-term study, researchers at Harvard found commute times were a crucial predictor of upward social mobility: families living in areas with shorter average commute times had a better chance of moving up the economic ladder than those living in areas with longer average commute times.

This study confirms what transportation advocates have known for decades: access to transportation is about more than getting from point A to point B; it’s a fundamental determinant of opportunity for millions of Americans.  Despite this critical importance, federal funding for transportation has remained uncertain in recent years, with Congress passing 10 short-term extensions of highway and transit programs in lieu of a comprehensive, long-term bill for reauthorizing surface transportation investments.

With our nation facing growing income disparities and aging, often inequitable, transportation systems, long-term investment in transportation couldn’t be more essential to the lives and livelihoods of Americans.

Transportation not only connects us to jobs and economic opportunities, it plays a key role in access to quality housing, schools, and health care, all of which are crucial for families trying to get ahead in life.  For the 7.5 million households in metropolitan areas without a car, public transit can be a bridge or a barrier to opportunity, depending on its availability.  A fare hike or change in bus route can determine whether or not someone can get to a doctor’s appointment, job, or grocery store, and whether they’re able to access child care and juggle going back to school to help improve the odds for their entire family.

Take the case of Shelia Williams, a 38-year-old single mother of five in Memphis, Tenn., who was putting herself through college when the city cut the only bus route she could take to get to school.  Facing the prospect of failing her classes, Williams joined the Memphis Bus Rider’s Union and with other advocates was able to win back her route, soon after being elected as the first transit-dependent member on the Memphis Transit Board.

Stories like hers, though sadly not uncommon, are a powerful illustration of the interaction between transportation and economic opportunity, and how easily the loss of one can cripple one’s access to the other. But stories like Williams’ are not told – or heard – nearly enough. Though reliable transportation is an overwhelmingly important factor in helping hard-working Americans move out of poverty, critical decisions about transportation investments are often made without the input of low-income people, people of color, people with disabilities, and the elderly. This means that those who are most affected by transportation systems are also those least likely to have any say in them.

Equitable transportation policy has the potential to foster economic mobility, ensuring that everyone in the community can participate in and benefit from the local economy. As Congress seeks a long-term funding solution to reauthorize surface transportation legislation, it is imperative that politicians in DC — and here in Tennessee — realize and prioritize the vital link between mobility and economic mobility, and recognize the importance of including the voices of low-income communities and communities of color in the decision-making process.

Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Blackwell is  founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a research and action institute focused on social and racial equity. Their organizations co-chair the Transportation Equity Caucus, a coalition of over 100 organizations charting a new course for transportation investments that advance economic and social equality in America.