The Spatial Mismatch Phenomenon
When we talk about the spatial mismatch phenomenon, we are referring to the fact that while many low-income people reside in the inner city, many jobs that these low-income people could do are in the suburbs. The spatial mismatch explains why most inner cities in the country remain trapped in poverty. Of course, ever since zoning mandated a mix of uses there has always been a spatial mismatch with people living at some distance from their workplaces. While the automobile makes the spatial mismatch a non-issue for middle and upper class people who live in the suburbs and work downtown, many low-income people cannot afford cars and are therefore theoretically trapped in poverty in the inner city, unable to reach opportunities that could improve their quality of life. There are many sociological reasons why this phenomenon has come about, especially in regards to racism, that are beyond the scope of this article. Thus, for the remainder of this piece I will just go over what role transit has played in the problem and how transit can improve the problem.
The Spatial Mismatch and Transit
Traditionally, workers lived in the suburbs and worked downtown. Transit systems have been set up for this kind of commute since the dawn of the streetcar era in the 1880s. However, they have not been as equipped to serve the reverse commute - workers living in the city and working in the suburbs. In fact, many transit agencies even today do not provide service to the suburban places where jobs are likely to be found (perhaps by extending their grid network ) - a decision based partly on the fact that densities are low and based partly on the fact that pre-dominantly white suburbanites do not want "those people" being able to travel to their neighborhoods. While densities are indeed low in these areas, do not discount the second factor - it is hard to believe that Arlington, TX (population 373,698), which has no transit service, could not support even a basic one. In addition, many malls prohibit transit agencies from entering them, ostensibly for safety reasons.
The JARC (Job Access and Reverse Commutes) program, which under MAP-21 has now been folded into a much larger formula grant program, was a federal program which attempted to overcome the spatial mismatch by providing operating money to transit agencies to operate new services aimed at the "non-traditional" commuting sector. This program has been helpful in introducing new routes and extending the service span of existing routes in suburban areas.
One important factor that aggravates the spatial mismatch is the fact that in many metropolitan areas multiple transit agencies operate. These agencies almost always operate different fare structures, mostly without transfers - thereby forcing travelers crossing the jurisdictional line to pay twice. Even if there is some kind of fare coordination, there is unlikely to be schedule coordination and convenient transfer locations. So, even if service is available, commuting to a job in the suburbs may entail paying twice in each direction and enduring a long transfer wait in an unprotected environment.
What Can Transit Agencies Do?
Unfortunately, the main contributor to the spatial mismatch phenomenon is sprawl - and the amount of sprawl that is allowed to occur is determined by local, county, and sometimes state planning departments. Transit agencies can, however, become more coordinated with each other and while the best result would be a single authority overseeing transit service for an entire metropolitan area there is a lot individual transit agencies can do to improve fare and schedule coordination with their neighbors. By sacrificing frequency agencies may also be able to extend routes further out without any additional money - remember that some bus service is much better than no bus service at all. In addition, connection locations can be improved with additional amenities such as shelters and next-bus arrival signs added. There are federal grant programs available to help transit agencies accomplish these objectives - all they have to is apply.