A “spatial mismatch” has emerged between the location of jobs and people in metropolitan America, argues a new Brookings Institution study, “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America.”

In a study of 371 mass transit providers in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, the authors find that nearly 70% of the residents of large metro areas live in neighborhoods with access to transit service of some kind. However, the typical metropolitan resident can reach only 30% of the jobs in their market via transit within 90 minutes. Access is particularly limited in Richmond, somewhat less so in Hampton Roads and superior in metropolitan Washington, according to data in the study.

Transportation decision makers should make access to jobs an “explicit priority” in their spending and service decisions, the authors contend. “Metro leaders should coordinate strategies regarding land use, economic development and housing with transit decisions in order to ensure that transit reaches more people and more jobs efficiently.”

Conceptually, Virginia regions have two broad options for reducing the jobs-people mismatch: extend existing transit service to areas now lacking it, with the likely consequence that they will run up larger operating deficits… Or change comprehensive plans and zoning policies to encourage a better balance of jobs, housing and amenities within areas already served by mass transit, thus generating more ridership and reducing the need for operating subsidies.

Readers paying attention to Ed Risse’s call for “balanced” regions, communities and neighborhoods will immediately find this idea familiar. Ed’s critics deem the idea of achieving balance in more compact, walkable communities to be uncomfortably akin to social engineering. They forget, of course, that existing land use patterns are the result of social engineering as well, the difference being that social engineering since World War II has designed American communities around the goals of single-family home ownership and personal mobility by means of the automobile.

I am agnostic as to whether automobiles are preferable to mass transit. Public preferences will change depending upon (a) the cost of gasoline, (b) the cost of automobile ownership, (c) the cost and convenience of mass transit, and (d) the general level of prosperity, among other factors. In other words, preferences will change according to circumstance. There is no single solution for all places and all times.

How, then, do policy makers decide which is the best modal mix? They don’t. They let consumers make that decision — with one caveat, that they pay full locational costs associated with where they live and work. Roads and mass transit alike must pay their way through fares, tolls, user fees, and the capture of capture of increased property values created by the building of new transportation infrastructure. Create a level playing field and let the market decide. That’s not social engineering.

According to the Brookings ranking of access to transit and employment, the Washington metro area scores in the Top 20 of the nation’s 100 largest regions, Richmond in the bottom 20, and Hampton Roads in the second-to-bottom 20. (Click on map for more legible image.)

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