Transportation Access
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Access to transportation reduces barriers to employment, to educational opportunities, to health care, and to child care. Access to these opportunities and resources affect all the dimensions of mobility from poverty.

Evidence of the Relationship between Predictor and Related Outcomes

  • Research shows a negative relationship between distance from transit access points and employment. For example, Kaufman and colleagues (2015) find that limited access to public transit in New York City neighborhoods was associated with higher levels of unemployment: the unemployment rate was 12.6 percent in neighborhoods with some but insufficient transit access compared with 8.1 percent in neighborhoods that were highly ranked in terms of transit access. The authors argue that imbalances in transit access can limit physical mobility as well as economic mobility, contributing to income inequality. Other research also identifies transportation access as a key barrier to employment (Fletcher et al. 2010). Additionally, Sanchez, Shen, and Peng (2004) looked across cities and found that transit access is negatively related to the likelihood of a household being on public assistance.
  • The availability of public transit influences job accessibility, commute times, and overall economic outcomes. Even if public transit is generally accessible, it may not run to the desired destination or operate at the times needed by users (Sanchez 1999). A study of people receiving public benefits found that the entry-level jobs they tend to work often have non-peak-hour work shifts, such as evening shifts or weekend shifts, when public transportation services may be limited or unavailable (Sanchez 2008). That study references a report (GAO 1998) that found that 70 percent of entry-level jobs across the nation (defined as those in the manufacturing, retail, or wholesale sectors) were in the suburbs, and only 32 percent were within a quarter mile of a transit stop. Along with inadequate routes, affordability can be a barrier to transportation access. Although commuter rail may provide transport to jobs outside a city center, some argue it is too expensive for low-income workers (Sanchez 2008).
  • Many studies find that vehicle ownership improves job accessibility (Andersson et al. 2018; APTA 2019). For example, one study found that access to automobiles had a strong positive relationship to employment outcomes, although public transit access did not (Brumenber and Pierce 2016).
  • Chetty and Hendren (2018) draw a connection between transportation-related factors and long-term economic outcomes. The Equality of Opportunity Project included a variable that indicated the share of commuting workers in the community who could get to work in less than 15 minutes. They concluded that those with a very short commute have a larger presence in the communities where children grow up to be better off. Children raised in commuting zones with shorter average commute times have higher incomes in adulthood. Reducing commute times by one standard deviation in the areas in which a child is raised is associated with a 7 percent increase in income in adulthood (Chetty and Hendren 2018).
  • Transportation is also important for access to education. Access to safe, affordable, and convenient transportation shapes the “geography of opportunity” for many children and youth (Vincent et al. 2014). It affects which schools children and youth attend, which extracurricular activities they join, and what internships or work-based learning opportunities they might take advantage of. Transportation barriers that cause children and youth to be isolated translates into an “opportunity gap” that is mirrored in student achievement gaps (Vincent et al. 2014).
  • A study of the Student Pass program in Minneapolis, MN, found that the pass helped students attend school more regularly: absenteeism was 23 percent lower for pass users. Furthermore, students with a pass could access off-site after-school learning opportunities, and those students had GPAs 0.28 higher than students without a pass (Fan and Das 2015). The program enables high school students to take unlimited rides on regular-route buses and light rail from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the school year.
  • Studies have concluded that access to transportation can affect health outcomes. For example, an analysis of the 2002 National Health Interview Survey estimated that 3.6 million Americans miss at least one nonemergency medical appointment a year because of transportation constraints. The researchers discuss how this is disproportionately worse in neighborhoods with large populations of people of color, who rely more heavily on transit than white people (Wallace et al. 2005).
  • Access to reliable and affordable transportation can be particularly beneficial for households headed by single parents. Woo and Xu (2020) found that in Maryland, holding demographic, socioeconomic, and transportation variables constant, being a single parent was associated with more public transit use. Single parents face more economic hardship as well as added strain on their time and capacity, making access to viable transit options more important for accessing child care, grocery stores, and work. The inability to access child care services affects single parents’ employment decisions and stress levels. Further, lacking money for public transit can detract from a parent’s willingness and ability to be involved in their children’s education and puts families at higher risk for social exclusion (Woo and Xu 2020). Anther analysis finds that living in vehicle-centric communities leaves low-income households in a precarious situation, putting them one car breakdown away from poverty (Smart Growth America 2019).

How Investments Can Influence the Predictor at State or Local Levels

At a structural level, funding and resources could be allocated more equitably to connect people to destinations, support multimodal transportation systems, and prioritize projects that serve all users (Smart Growth America 2019). New programs and policies should increase access to social and economic opportunities, such as jobs, affordable housing, healthy food, education, health care, child care, and recreation, particularly for underserved and underrepresented communities. Specifically, transit-oriented development can be prioritized at the city or county level such that investments are made in projects that place affordable housing and community services close to accessible transportation. For example, some projects are prioritizing extending pedestrian-oriented development around metropolitan rail and bus stops to make transit more accessible to low-income populations (FTA 2013).

Further, commutes can be made easier through dedicated or enhanced route services. In the past, governments have added routes that were not as frequently traveled, and this helped low-income workers. These grants were made through the Job Access and Reverse Commute ProgramReverse Commute grants helped fund the costs of adding reverse commute bus, train, or carpool service from urban areas to suburban workplaces. Policymakers can also nurture the development of “intelligent, independent transportation services that fill transit gaps through web-based hailing technologies for shared rides” (Kaufman et al. 2015, 5).

Transportation subsidies such as student passes (Fan and Das 2015) or employer-provided transportation (Sanchez 2008) can reduce financial barriers to accessing transportation. Beyond subsidies, some communities are making public transportation entirely free and are piloting free ride-hailing services (Gardner 2019). Further, programs could invest in models to provide late-night service to meet the public transportation needs of late-shift workers. For example, Detroit is investing in 24-hour transit service. To increase safety, the city installed police cameras and additional lighting at transit stops (APTA 2019).


Andersson, Fredrik, John C. Haltiwanger, Mark J. Kutzbach, Henry O. Pollakowski, and Daniel H. Weinberg. 2018. “Job Displacement and the Duration of Joblessness: The Role of Spatial Mismatch,” Review of Economics and Statistics C (2): 203–18.

APTA (American Public Transportation Association). 2019. “Supporting Late-Shift Workers: Their Transportation Needs and the Economy.” Washington, DC: APTA.

Brumenber, Evelyn, and Gregory Pierce. 2016. “The Drive to Work: The Relationship between Transportation Access, Housing Assistance, and Employment among Participants in the Welfare to Work Voucher Program.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 37 (1): 66–82.

Chetty, Raj, and Nathaniel Hendren. 2018. “The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility II: County-Level Estimates.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 133 (3): 1163–1228.

Fan, Yingling, and Kirti Das. 2015. Assessing the Impacts of Student Transportation on Public Transit. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Center for Transportation Studies.

Federal Transit Administration (FTA). 2013. “Transportation Needs of Disadvantages Populations: Where, When, and How?” Washington, DC: FTA.

Fletcher, Cynthia Needles, Steven B. Garasky, Helen H. Jensen, and Robert B. Nielsen. 2010. “Transportation Access: A Key Employment Barrier for Rural Low-Income Families.” Journal of Poverty 14 (2): 123–44.

Gardner, Keona. 2019. “Pick up your smartphone for a free ride if you live in southwest Port St. Lucie.” TC Palm, December 9.

GAO (US General Accounting Office). 1998. “Welfare Reform: Transportation’s Role in Moving from Welfare to Work.” GAO/RCED-98-161. Washington, DC: GAO.

Kaufman, Sarah M., Mitchell L. Moss, Jorge Hernandez, and Justin Tyndall. 2015. “Mobility, Economic Opportunity and New York City Neighborhoods.” New York: New York University Wagner School, Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management.

Sanchez, T. W. 1999. “The Connection Between Public Transit and Employment: The Cases of Portland and Atlanta.” Journal of the American Planning Association 65 (3).

Sanchez, Thomas W., Qing Shen, and Zhong-Ren Peng. 2004. “Transit Mobility, Jobs Access and Low-income Labour Participation in US Metropolitan Areas.” Urban Studies 41 (7): 1313–31.

*Sanchez, Thomas W. 2008. “Poverty Policy, and Public Transportation.” Transportation Research Part A 42 (5): 833–41.

Smart Growth America. 2019. “The State of Transportation and Health Equity.” Washington, DC: Smart Growth America.

Vincent, Jeffrey M., Carrie Makarewicz, Ruth Miller, Julia Ehrman and Deborah L. McKoy. 2014. “Beyond the Yellow Bus: Promising Practices for Maximizing Access to Opportunity Through Innovations in Student Transportation.” Berkeley: University of California, Center for Cities + Schools.

Wallace, Richard, Paul Hughes-Cromwick, Hillary Mull, and Snehamay Khasnabis. 2005. “Access to Healthcare and Nonemergency Medical Transportation: Two Missing Links.” Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 1924 (1).

Woo, Sicheng, and Yanfeng Xu. 2020. “Transit Use for Single-Parent Households: Evidence from Maryland.” In Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Volume 8, edited by Elsevier. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Opportunity-Rich & Inclusive Neighborhoods

Related outcome: Stable and healthy living environment

Mobility dimension engaged: Economic success; power and autonomy; being valued in community

Person in wheel chair illustration