New Google Maps feature illustrates transit dependence in the SouthCoast

Last week I learned that all of Massachusetts’ Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) finally have routes and schedules integrated into Google Maps. That means that in addition to asking the application to help you navigate to your SouthCoast destination by car or on foot, you can also ask for directions using that bus icon:<image no longer available>

This is great news, because as the Urban Initiative/Center for Policy Analysis found in a 2010 phone survey, 48.9 percent of New Bedford residents who don’t ride the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (SRTA) bus are not familiar with the frequency with which the bus arrives at the stops closest to their homes or workplaces. With Google Maps, you can find out–sort of.

The first problem I’ve found while using this new option is that individual stops are not entered into Google Maps. So instead of directing me to the bus stop nearest my house, Google Maps tells me to go to the bus terminal downtown. Something else that confuses me is that the way the routes appear on the map seem to imply that these are not your typical city buses–instead, they seem to have the ability to fly: <image no longer available>

This isn’t terribly helpful. What if I miss the bus at St. Luke’s hospital, which is the suggested stop, and need to hop on somewhere else instead? If the bus defies laws of traffic and gravity, I’m not sure what my backup plan could possibly be.

Putting my crankiness–which I prefer to call high expectations–aside, having SRTA information available to Google mappers is tremendously useful for one thing: hammering home the fact that our region is a very hard place to be transit dependent, because the limited number of bus routes and high degree of sprawl will invariably leave many stranded, or at least make their commutes impossibly long. For example, if I wanted to take the bus home from the Urban Initiative office at 6:00 today, I’d need to budget for an astounding one hour and twenty-two minutes of travel. That includes riding two different buses and walking 1.3 miles. Since I’m driving home instead, I’ll be able to cover the 3.8 miles in just 9 minutes.

If you’re wondering about the implications of this, I’ll direct you to the recently released study on opportunities for upward mobility. Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points to the role of sprawl, noting that income mobility in Atlanta is limited not by the number of jobs, but by the time it takes low-income residents to reach them.

Now, consider the fact that in 2010, 62 percent of SRTA riders in New Bedford reported having no access to a working vehicle. How does their dependence affect their access to good jobs and higher education? And what about those who live too far afield to ride the bus in the first place? We look forward to more conversation around these questions, the answers to which are essential for improving both economic development and quality of life in the SouthCoast.

August project update

Here’s a snapshot of our workload this month:

1) NB Line Evaluation

  • Last year was our first year working with the Center for Policy Analysis to evaluate the impact of the NB Line, a shuttle offered by the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park in conjunction with the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (SRTA). This year, we’re replicating our methods.
  • One of those methods is on-board surveying, so if you ride either route of the NB Line between today (8/5) and Sunday (8/11), you’ll encounter a UI staffer asking you to take a survey. Other steps we’ll take will include key informant interviews, focus groups, and data analysis to fully develop the picture of the NB Line’s and impact on things like attracting tourists, reducing congestion, and increasing access to New Bedford amenities.

2) The SouthCoast Urban Indicators Project (SCUIP)

  • The newest page on SCUIP covers the topic of rental housing, including data points like average monthly rent, rental housing burden, and renter occupancy rates.
  • Here’s the link for Fall River’s page, and here’s the link for New Bedford’s.

3) Taunton HOPE VI evaluation

  • We’re wrapping up the writing of our findings after interviewing 25 heads of household (in English and Spanish).
  • We’re also updating the baseline data we collected last summer to determine whether neighborhood and city conditions have changed.

4) College access

  • Our team of Upward Bound interns developed a Tumblr called, ‘Let’s go to college.’ Even though they’re done coming to the Urban Initiative twice a week, they and our other interns will continue updating the site this school year.
  • A draft report of the interns’ findings should be finished by the start of the school year, but they’re hoping to do some surveys of fellow students in September. Expect a final report in late September/early October.

5) LifeWork Project

  • We’ve begun designing the assessment tools that will be used to collect baseline data for all program participants who matriculate next month.