Where Do the Poor Live in Cities? Revisiting the Role of Public Transportation on Income Sorting in US Urban Areas

86 Pages Posted: 16 Jun 2020

Date Written: June 3, 2020


Glaeser et al. (2008) argue that the relative distribution of poor and rich households (HHs) in American cities is “strongly” explained by the spatial location of the cities’ public transportation (PT) networks. Among their claims: 1) The broad distribution of poor and rich HHs in the typical American city is consistent with a basic monocentric city model that includes commute technology speeds; 2) Poor commuters will overwhelmingly transition from commuting by PT to car if they experience a substantial increase in their HH’s income; 3) areas in American cities that receive new PT infrastructure become poorer over time. Using 2017 data I find empirical evidence that partially or wholly contradicts these three claims. First, as of 2017, the observed concentration of poor HHs in the inner city and rich HHs in the suburbs of the US’ smaller cities cannot be explained by monocentric model that includes commute speeds. Second, as of 2017, significant increases in poor HHs’ incomes were not expected to lead to a “massive shift” towards car commuting in these HHs; most of these poor workers commute by car already. Third, using data from four cities that expanded their light-rail and rapid-bus network in the early 2000s, I find that neighborhoods surrounding new light-rail or rapid-bus stations either saw little change in their income patterns or became slightly richer after station opening. In conclusion, as of 2017, the spatial distribution of HH incomes within American urban areas is not as intricately linked to the location of PT networks as Glaeser et al. (2008) would have us believe. As an addendum to the analysis I add some thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect commuting behavior and income distributions within urban areas over the next decade.

Keywords: Monocentric city model, public transportation, commuting, household income distribution, mode choice, random utility model, event-study, light rail

JEL Classification: O18, R2, R41

Suggested Citation

Nelson, Erik, Where Do the Poor Live in Cities? Revisiting the Role of Public Transportation on Income Sorting in US Urban Areas (June 3, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3628712 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3628712

Erik Nelson (Contact Author)

Bowdoin College ( email )

Brunswick, ME 04011
United States

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