Where the Buses Don’t Run
Recently, a study from the University of Minnesota calculated how many jobs could be reached by transit in major U.S. cities during peak travel times. The results showed that, even in dense metropolitan areas, relatively few jobs can be reached quickly. For example, in New York City the average worker can only access 2.5 percent of the city’s employment opportunities in fewer than 30 minutes using transit and walking. Only 14.6 percent of jobs can be reached in fewer than 60 minutes.
The case with Saint Louis and Kansas City, with only around 10 percent of the job market density of NYC, is considerably worse. In both cities, less than 1 percent of job opportunities in the city can be reached within 30 minutes of transit travel. Only around 5 percent of jobs can be reached within one hour. A chart of percentage of jobs available by transit travel time is below:
As a result, moving from suburban residences (where most Saint Louisans live) to suburban workplaces (where most Saint Louisans work) is not well served by transit. Furthermore, large employment centers in exurban areas are difficult to reach via transit at all. Despite significant investment and operating costs—usually more than $300 million per year in Saint Louis—it is clear that very few workplaces can be reached quickly via transit in Missouri.
What accounts for this disconnect? One factor may be that cities like Saint Louis and Kansas City are polycentric urban centers with employment clustering in different nodes across the metropolitan area. Focusing on Saint Louis, while virtually all of Saint Louis City and much of Saint Louis County has reasonable access to transit, much of the system is focused on bringing people in and out of the downtown core. A map of MetroBus accessibility is show below:
A second problem is that transit is time-costly even where it regularly operates, putting work locations outside the 30- or 60-minute transit range. Again taking Saint Louis as an example, it takes 30 minutes to travel from the Chase Park Plaza (in the Central West End) to City Hall via walking and transit. That is about as transit-friendly a route that exists in the city. Traveling from the Central West End to Monsanto headquarters for work (around 8.5 miles apart) would take an hour or more via transit, necessitating a commuter to leave at 7:38 a.m. to get to work by 8:55 a.m. The drive, depending on traffic, is less than 20 minutes.
These realities likely contribute to the very low share of commuters who choose transit in Saint Louis and Kansas City. And unfortunately, it is unlikely that any feasible increase in transit spending or service extension will meaningfully alter these realities. Without significantly rethinking how transit is provided, there is little chance the mode will be able to provide timely transportation for labor pools in Saint Louis and Kansas City.