Measuring the Impact of Public Transportation Access and Funding Decisions on Public Health

Public transportation operators must frequently make decisions on how to much service to run, where to run it, what amenities to offer, and how to set fares.  In a time of limited budgets, these decisions usually involve difficult trade-offs.  Alameda County, home to Oakland, California, has had transit service cuts and fare increases in recent years, so the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) wanted to study how these decisions impact public health.  ACPHD believes that documenting these impacts will encourage local leaders to give them serious consideration when setting budgets and developing service plans.

Over the past year, ACPHD partnered with several other agencies and non-profits to conduct surveys and focus groups asking local bus riders about their health circumstances, access to work, activities, and appointments, and the effects of service cuts and fare increases on their daily lives.  Beyond asking directly about access to health care, healthy foods, or recreation, ACPHD investigated other key factors that help a person stay healthy.  For example, after recent cuts to bus services, 28% of those interviewed reported a major increase in commute time of 30 minutes or more, and another 19% reported a similar lengthening of the time it takes to get to school.  Long commutes have been linked to increased stress and less time for sleep and exercise.  They can also limit the number of hours a person can work, reducing the ability to afford basic needs for maintaining good health.  For some riders, fare increases also meant less spending on food, social activities, and health care visits, all factors important for good health.

Many residents in Alameda County do not have access to a car, and prior studies had shown that lower-income people and people of color in their region rely heavily on bus services in particular.  These groups also face higher health burdens and live in areas with fewer health-promoting resources.  Philadelphia is similar to Alameda County in that over 35% of Philadelphia households do not have any vehicles available, and only half of workers travel to work by car, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Both of these measures indicate that our residents share many of the concerns about quality bus service as those examined by Alameda County.

However, SEPTA faces a $38 million deficit in the operating budget for the coming fiscal year, expected to grow to $160 million by 2018.  Additionally, an economic analysis of SEPTA published last month highlights just a $304 million capital budget available in 2013 for a capital needs backlog of $4.7 billion.  This illustrates the difficult decision-making context SEPTA must navigate to provide public mobility while maintaining affordable fares and constrained budgets.  Looking west at the Pittsburgh Port Authority, similar budget shortfalls required a 35% service cut in early 2011, scaled back to 15% only after an emergency fund transfer.  Another budget gap was looming in 2012, threatening to raise fares while eliminating 46 bus routes and ending most other service at 10 p.m.  While the cuts were later temporarily delayed with emergency funding, these actions would have seriously reduced the access to jobs, social connection, and affordability of basic needs that ACPHD identified as factors for maintaining public health.

The farmers’ market at the Frankford Transportation Center in Northeast Philadelphia will reopen for the 2013 season in just a few weeks. Image courtesy of septa.org

Still, SEPTA has managed to support some of the public health goals identified by the ACPHD such as protecting job access by operating overnight service on key bus routes that accommodate non-traditional hours.  It has also partnered with organizations to host farmers markets at major SEPTA hubs including the Olney and Frankford Transportation Centers, increasing access to fresh produce options that are accessible without a car.  An additional 38 farmers’ markets can be found at or near other SEPTA stations and routes.

The Food Trust, which organizes many of these markets, has additional information on Philadelphia farmer’s markets: http://thefoodtrust.org/farmers-markets

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