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Low-income residents in NCC face disparities in transportation access

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Low-income residents in New Castle County have better access to biking, walking and transit options than higher income groups. Unfortunately, many still struggle to reach destinations like the supermarket, hospitals or places of employment, according to a new report from the Wilmington Area Planning Council.

In largely suburban Delaware, dependence on either transit, walking or biking can mean isolation. The report found that on average 95% of homes were “reasonably connected by car to destinations” while that number was 23% for bikes, 17% for transit, and 7% for walking.

Nearly 50% of all households earning less than $25,000 per year were prevented from doing normal activities due to a lack of available transportation. For those high-poverty households that live out in the suburbs, everyday travel costs make up about a quarter of their budget, when 18% is the commonly held standard for a reasonable cost.

In part, this disparity stems from historic development patterns that have left much of the low-income population separated from needed services and jobs. “We found that many of the low-wage job centers are actually outside of Wilmington,” said Bill Swiatek, planner and project manager for WILMAPCO.

WILMAPCO is the metropolitan planning organization tasked with setting transportation goals for New Castle County and Cecil County, Maryland. Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the organization is federally mandated to ensure that planning efforts are nondiscriminatory and address social inequities in the region.

The Transportation Justice Plan is the document that guides that work, and the latest version is set to be approved by the WILMAPCO board as of the publication of this article.

The plan includes “connectivity maps” developed with the University of Delaware that measure transportation accessibility for places like senior centers, pharmacies, supermarkets, and medical centers, to name a few. One map looks at connections to low-wage employment centers, such as Christiana Hospital, Concord Mall, and a number of shopping centers scattered across the county.

Overall, the map shows that the concentration of low-income people in Wilmington, combined with their greater dependence on transit, biking and walking, makes accessing these suburban job centers more difficult. “The neighborhoods with the highest level of impoverished households had the least access to low-wage job centers,” Swiatek said.

Swiatek points to the historic development of the region, in which much of the population moved to the suburbs and brought many of the jobs and commercial activity with them. One key statistic: 100 years ago Wilmington contained 76% of the county’s population, while today that number is 13%. Now residing in Wilmington could mean relative isolation from more robust job centers.

The pattern of the transit system reflects the same trend, Swiatek added. The bus system, for example, works like a spoke and wheel. Individual destinations might be transit-accessible from within the city, but moving between them is more difficult. For many low-income residents, particularly those who live outside of Wilmington, it’s the luck of the draw whether there is an easy transit route to a prospective job.

WILMAPCO offers a number of recommendations for addressing this disparity. One strategy is to actively tweak the bus system based on metrics like the connectivity maps to connect more job centers with low-income neighborhoods. Another, which falls outside of transportation planning, is pushing developers to concentrate new residential and commercial spaces around major transit lines, bike paths, and walking routes.

“One of the big problems we face is that transportation and land use are in two different worlds sometimes,” Swiatek said. “That’s really what’s led to suburban sprawl, where a land-use decision is made and transportation sort of has to play catch-up.” 

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