5 Signs You're in a Transit Desert

Approximately 1 in 4 American adults experience transportation insecurity, living in what is called a "transit desert." Not unlike so-called food deserts, transit deserts are areas where residents have limited or no access to public transportation or even certain types of basic infrastructure, like well-maintained sidewalks. That creates challenges in accessing essential services, employment opportunities, education, and other aspects of daily life that rely on reliable transportation.

The ramifications are profound: Among the 24.6 million people who live in transit deserts, poverty, and social insecurity are higher than the national average. This highlights the urgent need to understand what a transit desert is, the key elements that comprise a transit desert, and the savvy, tech- and data-driven solutions out there that can enhance people's abilities to get where they need to get safely, conveniently, and affordably.

5 Ways to Tell if You're in a Transit Desert

Lack of access to transportation can be isolating, making it difficult for people to reach jobs, healthcare facilities, educational institutions, and other important destinations. Addressing transit deserts requires businesses, politicians, and community leaders to implement policies and infrastructure improvements to enhance five key transportation features in underserved areas.

1. Car Ownership

Car ownership, or lack thereof, is one of the top barriers to transportation. Most of America's transportation infrastructure is focused on personal vehicles, yet a quarter of American commuters don't own or use their own car to get around. With the average cost of car ownership skyrocketing 13% in the last year, the rate of car ownership may drop even further among rural or poorer areas, exacerbating pre-existing transit problems.

Not having a personal vehicle leaves people out of most urban planning solutions, since city planners traditionally focus on cars as the expected mode of transportation for citizens.

2. Public Transportation

Adequate public transit systems should provide extensive coverage to reach various neighborhoods and communities, yet only 45% of Americans have access to public transit. Areas where public transit services are limited or nonexistent can quickly become transit deserts.  

Today, ridership on public transit is at an all-time low, and this may be due to riders' concerns about transit frequency, reliability, and affordability. Much of it also boils down to the concept of fixed stops. When a specific subway station or a bus stop is still a significant distance from someone's home or where they need to go, public transit quickly becomes a non-starter for commuters. It's no wonder that fixed stops and issues with transit frequency and scheduling also have a disproportionate effect on seniors and those living with mobility issues or disabilities.

Savvy leaders can address this with more data and out-of-the-box solutions. For instance, in a case study focused on Chillicothe, Ohio, addressing fixed routes and incomplete transit coverage improved transit use. Initially, the city reported that only 1% of its population used public transportation. After turning to SHARE Mobility's solutions, public transit usage jumped to 4%.

3. Adequate Roads

Adequate roads provide a foundation for the operation of public transit systems. Buses, for example, rely on road infrastructure to travel efficiently and reach different neighborhoods. There's also the concept of last-mile connectivity — in transit deserts, even if there is a central public transit hub or station, commuters may struggle to reach their final destination without support for the last leg of their journey. Well-connected roads allow for effective last-mile transportation, whether through buses, shuttles (as shown in a recent case study with the Dublin Connector shuttle), or other modes.

Well-designed roads with appropriate lanes and facilities don't just enhance the speed and reliability of public transit services. An adequate road system can also accommodate other forms of transportation, including bicycles and pedestrian pathways, providing alternative means to reach a destination.

4. Bicycle Infrastructure

While biking has speedily gained popularity as an alternative mode of transit in recent years, only 10% of American commuters ride a bicycle. Researchers point to numerous barriers to bike adoption that largely revolve around bicycle infrastructure:

  • Cities need dedicated, well-marked, and clearly defined bike lanes and paths to provide a safe and separated space for cyclists.
  • Transit hubs, train stations, and bus stops require accessible and secure bike parking facilities to encourage people to combine cycling with public transit, such as adequate bike racks, bike lockers, or bike-sharing options near transit points.
  • Public transportation systems should be deeply integrated with cyclists' needs, such as providing designated spaces on buses and trains for bike storage, and using bike sharing that complement public transit services for the first-mile and last-mile connectivity issues highlighted earlier.

5. Accessible Sidewalks

In transit deserts, where residents may have to cover significant distances to reach public transit stops or stations, sidewalks contribute to last-mile connectivity. Well-maintained sidewalks facilitate walking, allowing pedestrians to comfortably navigate their neighborhood and access other transit options when necessary.

Lack of sidewalks, poorly maintained sidewalks, and sidewalk systems that force pedestrians to take longer routes or cross busy intersections are key barriers to mobility that influence the creation of transit deserts. To encourage pedestrian activity, sidewalks must provide a designated and safe space for people to walk, separate from vehicular traffic. Sidewalks also need curb ramps and other accessibility features so a diverse range of residents can navigate their communities safely.

Solving Mobility Challenges in a Transit Desert

Transit deserts are a national problem affecting millions of Americans, with real, measurable impacts on social insecurity and poverty, employee and worker expenses and retention, and a city's overall sense of a vibrant, healthy community.

The traditional model of a personal vehicle-focused road system supported by fixed-stop public transition fails to meet the needs of 1 in 4 commuters. While some urban planners are focused on pouring billions of dollars into adding more transit stops or expanding multi-lane highways, forward-thinking community leaders, HR professionals and business leaders are looking for a more flexible, data- and tech-driven, future-proof solution. That's where SHARE Mobility comes in. We're an all-in-one transportation program management platform with software and solutions designed to change the way Americans commute — and we're especially excited about optimizing route performance and tackling the problem of fixed routes.

Read our recent case studies to see how we're transforming public transportation and helping to overcome the key elements of a transit desert, then contact us to book a demo today!

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