Through our emergent Connect” work, we’re exploring ways to increase the number of low-income people who can affordably access job opportunities and essential services such as childcare or health services.

The Regional Planning Association (RPA) recently launched an impressive and interactive tool that lets users map the New York City Metro Area by how long it takes to access jobs. The RPA tool, which was featured in Atlantic Cities and The Washington Post just over a week ago, has the potential to answer an important question for city residents: What kind of job opportunities – and how many – do you have access to based on where you live?

By starting with this question of access, the tool points the way toward a new way of thinking about how cities connect their residents to opportunity.

Living cities is also considering the issue of accessibility. Through our emergent “Connect” work, we’re exploring ways to increase the number of low-income people who can affordably access job opportunities and essential services such as childcare or health services. Indeed, we’re seeing these issues of connectivity across our various bodies of work. Our Integration Initiative partners in New Orleans, for example, are grappling with how to better connect areas with high unemployment to those with open job opportunities (see map below).

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This is a core tenet of our emergent thinking: transportation is a not an end in and of itself, but a means to the end of providing access to opportunity. The RPA’s interactive tool effectively moves the conversation in this direction by moving the focus away from the transportation system and towards access to jobs. This is a promising step in the right direction and we can take it even one step further.

While access to quality jobs is critical for living a fulfilling life, so are other essential goods and services, such as health care, education, fresh food, and child care. As Emily Badger notes in The Post,

“The ultimate goal of transportation, though, isn’t really to move us. It’s to connect us – to jobs, to schools, to the supermarket.”

Mapping access to opportunity through this frame can help us better understand the various barriers that low-income communities face in successfully and efficiently navigating cities and greater metropolitan areas. Indeed, the possibilities for adapting RPA’s tool in this way are nearly endless: what would a map of NYC look like if we measured access to nearest hospital or health care clinic? Or if we mapped access to affordable day care service, which are essential for parents who work?

Luckily, there is a growing trend in the use of data and maps to measure access to opportunity in this way. Several regions have recently launched Equity Atlas reports to map out the existing inventory of housing, jobs, schools, hospitals and other amenities communities need. Two of these regions ( Denver and Portland) have even taken their Equity Atlases online to create more effective tools that allow users to create maps, layer datasets on top, and zoom in on particular neighborhoods. At Living Cities, we’re actively thinking about how these tools can be used to actively measure and understand access to opportunity.

And the potential value of mapping regions by access to opportunity doesn’t end there. These tools should also be adapted to shed light on how specific populations move around regions. Imagine if cities created tools that not only mapped regional access to jobs and essential services, but also broke down access patterns by race, ethnicity, or income. Used in this way, mapping tools can give us greater insight into how specific communities interact with the transportation system. While we already know that many regions face racial disparities in commute times, a greater understanding of these dynamics can only help us address these spatial inequities more appropriately.

In an economic and political climate where most rhetoric surrounds job creation, it’s important to note that for low income people in many metro areas, access to opportunity can be as challenging an issue as the existence of opportunity. Going back to the example of Greater New Orleans, low-income people have a significant need for actual transportation options between the high unemployment and high job opportunity areas. Yet in many cases, it’s difficult - if not impossible - for transit infrastructure to keep up with the migration patterns of low-income people (especially as they’re priced out of transit-friendly neighborhoods). This is why the RPA’s tool is so promising – it improves our ability to measure and understand mobility in terms of how people actually navigate cities. Only from that understanding can we then improve cities’ and regions’ supportive infrastructure for connecting low-income people to jobs and essential services.

To learn more about Living Cities’ work to increase the number of low-income people with affordable access to jobs and essential services, read _ this recent blog post by Amy Chung and Juan Sebastian Arias._