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UW-Milwaukee - Center for Economic Development

Policy Research Publications

Transportation Equity and Access to Jobs in Metropolitan Milwaukee, by Joel Rast

Executive Summary

This study examines how well public transit in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha, and Washington counties provides low-income residents of the 4-county region with access to job opportunities. Researchers have long observed a "spatial mismatch" between job growth centers and low-income residential communities in metropolitan areas around the country. Studies show that for decades, the suburban share of metropolitan jobs has been steadily increasing, while low-income populations typically remain concentrated in central city neighborhoods far removed from regional job growth centers. Because low-income persons frequently do not have access to an automobile, effective public transportation is often crucial in bridging the gap between the inner-city locations of low-income populations and the increasingly suburban locations of job opportunities.

Our research confirms the presence of a spatial mismatch between low-income residential communities and job opportunities in the Milwaukee region. Eighty-one percent of families living below the poverty line are located in the city of Milwaukee. By contrast, only 30 percent of businesses with strong hiring projections for entry-level workers are located in Milwaukee. The remaining 70 percent are in the suburbs.

Families in the Milwaukee region living below the poverty level rely heavily on public transportation. However, public transit is only partially effective in connecting inner-city residents with job opportunities in the region. Although most low-income families are located within walking distance of bus stops, many potential job opportunities are inaccessible by transit. Our analysis shows that:

  • 59.1 percent of businesses with strong hiring projections for entry-level workers are located within 1/4 mile of bus lines.
  • 63.5 percent of businesses with strong hiring projections for entry-level workers are located within 1/2 mile of bus lines.

Our findings take on added significance when recent developments in regional transportation operations and planning are taken into account. Current plans call for a $6.23 billion reconstruction of the entire 270-mile Southeastern Wisconsin highway system over the next 30 years. Meanwhile, Milwaukee County Transit Services (MCTS), the principal transit provider in the region, has reduced bus service every year since 2001. The present climate in Southeastern Wisconsin is thus one of retrenchment for public transit and expansion for highways.

Choices presently being made about the future of transportation in Southeastern Wisconsin will shape the region's transportation infrastructure for years to come. If we continue along the present trajectory-massive public investments in highway reconstruction and reduced funding for public transit-the outcome is clear. Ultimately, we will find ourselves with two transportation systems, separate and unequal-one, a state-of-the-art highway network whose principal beneficiaries are white, middle-class suburban residents; the other, an underfunded public transit system serving as the transportation of last resort for the region's least privileged residents.

The complete report (1.3 mb) is available in Adobe's Acrobat format. Acrobat Reader is required to view the file. Use Adobe's web site to download a free copy of Acrobat Reader.

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