Tucked away in the center of a country renowned for its capacity to thrive and develop, lies a metropolitan region vastly recognized for its inability to do just that. A calamity has befallen the residents of North Saint Louis, where more than one in four individuals live under the poverty line. In fact, the economic and sociopolitical plight endured by residents of North St. Louis has been a subject of fairly prominent concern throughout the region. But compassion without action is simply not enough. Local politicians and other residents have an obligation to help change the situation in North St. Louis.
In 2000, a study was performed to analyze potential transportation improvements in the STL Metropolitan Area. One of the recommendations was to construct a new light rail transit (LRT) extension that would introduce public transit infrastructure to North St. Louis (1). Nearly two decades and several failed proposals later, the ballot in a St. Louis municipal election featured a proposition that asked voters if the city should increase the sales tax rate to expand public transit into North City. Upon popular approval, the process of developing the new Northside LRT line began.
So, could an additional metro line be the catalyst for socioeconomic reform in this historically disadvantaged area?
To answer this question, let’s first examine the efficacy of STL’s current LRT infrastructure. East of Forest Park, current LRT lines run only alongside Interstate 64, despite the fact that the areas with the highest population density and poverty rates are concentrated north of the interstate (2, 3). A 2015 report by Raj Chetty of Harvard University demonstrates the necessity of accessible transportation to impoverished groups. By assessing the impact of many environmental variables on the economic potential of families, Chetty finds that “twenty years of exposure to… commute times less than 15 minutes on average increases a child’s income” potential by 7% (4). This may not seem substantial, but, out of all the variables considered in Chetty’s study—including tax rates, access to education, labor markets, and family structure—the one with the greatest positive impact on economic mobility was commute time.
However, it is still unclear that the proposed LRT expansion in St. Louis would necessarily lower commute times and produce the sort of economic effects that Chetty has demonstrated. To probe the connection between public transit infrastructure and commuting, a 2014 report by Andrew Owen of the Center for Transportation Studies compares metropolitan areas in the United States by analyzing commute times through public transit. Of the 46 cities studied, Saint Louis ranks 28th, with only 0.17% of its employed population able to reach work via mass transit within 20 minutes (5). However, residents in most areas of STL are able to reach work efficiently precisely because they do not rely on mass transit for their commute. The areas of STL with lower average commute times correlate closely with the areas that depend the least on public transportation, while regions with higher commute times—such as North City—match up with areas highly dependent on mass transit (Figure 1). It may tempting to conclude from this data that LRT infrastructure in St. Louis does not effectively lower commute times, and that LRT expansion would therefore be a waste. But Figure 2 demonstrates that jobs with short commutes via public transit are heavily concentrated near the existing LRT infrastructure.
Let’s summarize. Shorter commute times correlate with economic prosperity; residents of North City experience longer commute times; residents of North City rely heavily on public transportation; and people in St. Louis with the closest access to LRT lines have the shortest commute times. Put all the puzzle pieces together, and the picture suddenly becomes clear: an LRT expansion that improves proximity to transit in North St. Louis would facilitate economic mobility for the region.
Investments in public transit are not only theoretically beneficial; they’re also practical. In his report “Raise My Taxes, Please!”, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute analyzes taxpayer costs and savings when funding transit infrastructure in seven large US cities. He finds that the average annual household cost of $775 is “offset by $2,350 in vehicle, parking, and roadway savings,” amounting to more than a 200% return on investment. The socioeconomic cost of parking is further explored by city planner Jeff Speck in his book Walkable City. He explains that small, vacant properties often cannot meet the parking requirements necessary for redevelopment, and that therefore “nothing gets done and old buildings stay empty.” Vacant buildings are an all-too-familiar issue for St. Louisans (6), so part of the original LRT expansion plan was to provide “supportive zoning regulations near transit stations, such as reduced off-street parking requirements” (7). By affording developers greater freedom to restore vacant or abandoned properties, an LRT expansion would contribute new business and economic development to the area.
While fostering economic growth and saving individual costs, accessible transit also improves public health. Danielle T. Raudenbush of the University of Chicago demonstrates through her research that “public transportation not only constitutes a communication space, but also… plays a role in the generation of social cohesion” (8). According to a 2017 study by Litman, social cohesion “can help reduce local crime and poverty, provide support and safety, and increase property values,” all of which is crucial for North St. Louis to begin its movement towards prosperity. In another report from 2010, Litman also finds that public transit reduces injuries caused by traffic, lowers exposure to pollution, and elevates physical and mental fitness. In fact, Litman determines that a 10% public transit expansion would result in nearly $71 million in annual benefits derived from the reduction of health hazards (9). Moreover, according to an evaluation published in the journal Public Health, these benefits would most significantly impact disadvantaged groups, thus helping mitigate health inequality in the STL area (10). It is clear from these reports that expanding LRT to North St. Louis will not only offer an economic stimulus, but will also improve residents’ quality of life.
An LRT expansion in North St. Louis would provide physical and socioeconomic mobility, as well as introduce commercial development and improve public health, to residents of a historically disadvantaged area. For the residents of North St. Louis, compassion without action is not enough, but constructing the proposed LRT expansion is a strong step in the right direction.
Edited by: Soyi Sarkar
Illustrated by: Jennifer Broza