Poor mass transit coverage across the capital region and long wait times gave Baton Rouge a dismal national ranking in a report on how well the city’s bus system gets workers to their jobs.
The city, with its Capital Area Transit System, is ranked No. 82 out of 100 in a new transit report by the Brookings Institution.
The new report, known as “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” found that too often suburban areas are poorly linked with mass transit, and furthermore, those lines don’t always follow a region’s development patterns.
The report is a two-year study by Brookings, looking at 371 transit systems in the 100 largest metropolitan areas.
The New Orleans metro region came in at No. 26, aided in part by that region’s suburban bus system serving primarily Jefferson Parish.
“It’s sad to say that this bus system doesn’t run like the RTA in New Orleans,” said John Howard who lives in Midcity and generally uses the Bluebonnet Boulevard bus to get to work at the Bluebonnet post office, a trip that generally takes at least 30 minutes.
Howard, a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service, speaking one recent afternoon while riding the bus, was referring to the well-known and well-used Regional Transit Authority in New Orleans. That system operates 116 buses and 66 streetcars on 92 fixed routes and three rail lines, according to Dominic Moncada, a marketing and communications specialist with RTA.
By comparison, Baton Rouge’s CATS operates 60 buses on 19 routes.
The Brookings report looked specifically at the extent of transit routes, their accessibility to residents, the frequency of transit vehicles and how effective the systems are at getting workers to their jobs within 90 minutes.
Baton Rouge, like many Southern cities, scored low primarily because its bus system does not reach across the entire nine-parish metro region, and offers slow service for those commuters who do choose to use it, the study concluded.
“We see a much lower investment level in terms of service regularity, but also the extent of service, compared to other metros,” said Adie Tomer, a senior research analyst with Brookings.
Suburban sprawl in Baton Rouge and other cities is credited as one reason transit systems perform poorly when it comes to getting commuters to their jobs.
“Unless you’re on a coastline in the South, there tends not to be any geological limitations to development pattern,” Tomer said, comparing Southern cities to those on the West Coast, which generally scored relatively well in the Brookings transit study.
In Baton Rouge suburban sprawl makes public transit increasingly untenable for much of the metro region, said Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.
“Even the 14 percent of suburban residents who do have access to transit can reach only 20 percent of metropolitan jobs via transit within 90 minutes, a relatively low share,” Berube pointed out.
Job sprawl and what Tomer refers to as, “the suburbanization of poverty” — a trend that shows many suburbs losing affluence — has placed an increasing number of low-income residents and their jobs out of reach by transit systems, Tomer emphasized.
Tomer also noted that the suburbs are the location of many low-paying jobs in areas like retail.
“Many of these transit systems were designed for the middle of the 20th century when more Americans lived and worked in cities,” explained Berube. “Transit, still in most cases, does a pretty decent job of getting people into and out of downtown. But today, fully 40 percent of commutes nationwide are between suburbs — from suburb to suburb. And in general, most metro areas haven’t coordinated where they put transit with where they’re growing jobs and households, which tend to be in suburban locations.”
The study did not evaluate the transit systems against criteria such as ridership or financial sustainability.
“One of the things that we wanted to accomplish with this report is to see what’s available … to see what options there are in these metro areas,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, senior research associate with Brookings. “What we didn’t do is actually look at behavior. Or what modes people would choose to use, or actual ridership in these metro areas.”
And throwing lots of money at a transit system did not necessarily make it better or get employees to their jobs quicker, the Brookings researchers concluded.
“It’s not necessarily about spending more,” Tomer said. “It’s about spending smarter.
“Having a nice system that maybe gets you really well to the local football or basketball stadium or … certain spots, it might do a good job,” he added. “But if the whole system isn’t aligned with your development patterns, and then connecting that with the policies behind those development patterns … you’re going to see extreme differences in terms of accessibility.”
1. Honolulu, Hawaii
2. San Jose, Calif.
3. Salt Lake City
4. Tucson, Ariz.
5. Fresno, Calif.
26. New Orleans
65. Raleigh, N.C.
66. Little Rock, Ark.
69. Memphis, Tenn.
75. Charlotte, N.C.
76. Jackson, Miss.
82. Baton Rouge
94. Birmingham, Ala.
95. Knoxville, Tenn.
100. Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Source: Brookings Institution