Connecticut policymakers have been squarely focused on the education achievement gap this year, but a new report from the Brookings Institution cites another disparity that needs attention. Call it a “transportation gap.”

The report looked at the extent that residents in the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas use public transportation to get to their jobs. Not surprisingly, Connecticut was only in the middle of the pack when it comes to workers’ access to public transit.

But another important finding described commuting disparties in and out of some of the state’s larger cities — like New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford — versus its smaller cities, where a large number of jobs are also concentrated.

“Public transportation is a critical cog in actually making sure our metropolitan economies function to the peak of their abilities,” said Adie Tomer, a senior research associate at the Metropolitan Policy program at Brookings, a major Washington think tank.

He said that more suburb-to-suburb routing in Connecticut’s train and bus lines could help workers shed their cars for greener, often cheaper public transit.

Right now, that’s prohibitively difficult. “Commuters are forced to route through downtown core, hub kind of station set-ups, and oftentimes that can create much longer timelines for commuting — just long enough that it can maybe induce people to take their car instead of the public bus,” Tomer said.

In the New Haven metro area, for instance, about 45 percent of the population can reach a typical job in the city itself within 90 minutes. (Half of commuters nationwide take more than 45 minutes to get to work, Tomer said, to explain the high travel time threshold.) But only 18 percent of those who work in the surrounding towns use public transportation. The numbers are almost identical when comparing Hartford with its surroundings.

This kind of disparity was evident in most of the country’s metro areas, the report found — even though 63 percent of jobs are actually concentrated outside of major urban centers. Tomer said that creating routes outside of the urban hubs should be a key element of transportation policy.

Still, the suburbs or smaller towns — especially in Connecticut — tend to be car-centric and low-density residential and commercial areas. Improving train routes in those areas won’t solve the issue unless it’s easy to get to transit access points in those areas.

“Connecticut is a suburban state, and that’s really the issue that we’re talking about here,” said Norman Garrick, an associate professor of transportation engineering at the University of Connecticut. “The patterns we have created over the past 50 years have made it very, very difficult to support public transportation.”

Even in Connecticut’s smaller towns that do have train stations, ridership is far less and stations tend to be located far from housing — with few parking options. Public buses don’t go right to the train station or don’t exist at all, and the jobs themselves aren’t located near the train station either.

“A lot of the jobs are not in these centers, but they’re in things like office parks, or malls, or places that were built in the last 50 years that are much more car-centric places. And that’s the problem,” said Garrick. Encouraging public transit in these car-centric areas is going to require a major shift in attitudes about land use and development policies.

Most of the discussion around improving transit in Connecticut, as in many states, still focuses on the bigger cities. Hartford received a $10 million federal grant to improve access from Union Station to downtown, which is less than a mile away but which few people are comfortable walking to or taking the bus. Commuters who start from Stamford Transportation Center are promised a better parking garage with more spaces in the near future, and similar promises have been made for New Haven’s Union Station.

These are all steps in the right direction, said Garrick, as is the focus on the new New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail. But he said it’s important not to focus just on those central hubs.

“What is going to be the character of the stops on that rail system? If they’re able to strengthen some of the suburban places like Meriden or Windsor, then I think it will be a move in the right direction,” Garrick said.

Otherwise, smaller cities and towns may have brand-new, shining train stations, but few people will be inclined to actually use them.

This story was the result of a reporting partnership between WNPR and the Mirror. For a radio version of the story, click here.

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