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Cities are transforming transit deserts with data-driven planning

How can we make traveling easier and more convenient for people living in transit deserts? Cities are using a data-driven approach to solve the problem.

Via Transportation •

Welcome to our Data-Driven Planning Lessons series, where we give you key takeaways on how cities are increasing transit accessibility by leveraging multiple types of data, including demographics, fixed-route ridership, on-demand mobility patterns, and beyond  — all in one platform. Let’s get started. 

24.6 million: it’s the number of Americans who live in transit deserts — where demand for public transportation is high but supply is low — and for the 19% of them who also live below the poverty line, solutions like taxis or ride-hail are often economically out of reach; for the 3.5% without vehicles, driving is not an option. Even for residents with cars, maintaining a private vehicle could be getting more expensive given the sky-high gas prices , which show no signs of going down.

A number of studies have shown a strong link between transit deserts and an increased risk for poverty, social isolation, and even health crises. Research also reveals that transportation barriers disproportionately affect low-income neighborhoods, typically located away from city centers with transit hubs, and the Black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian families who live in historically underserved neighborhoods.

Though connecting a transit desert to the rest of the transit network might seem daunting, cities and agencies have an increasingly more sophisticated arsenal of tools available to plan interventions, implement new services, and assess results. Data that was often siloed from traditional planning efforts — particularly data from new mobility modes like microtransit — can now be visualized alongside demographic stats, fixed-route ridership, and other key inputs. 

Data-driven planning — incorporating multiple layers of transit- and demographic-related information — can help agencies address transit deserts in the following ways:

  1. Pinpoint the deserts. Visualize how existing transit serves the community and clearly identify gaps.
  2. Identify the impact of proposed interventions. Understand where underserved populations — lower-income, car-free, low English-proficiency — intersect with transit deserts in order to see where new public transit services will have the greatest impact on access and equity.
  3. Assess results. Measure changes in transit patterns to measure actual impact and further optimize the network.

Using these approaches, a number of US cities have introduced transit into former deserts to increase coverage for lower-income residents, offer access to essential services, and connect riders with the existing transit system.  

We’ve compiled these stories into a series of articles highlighting the challenges cities face when planning for transit deserts, and how a data-driven approach can help. We’ll be adding more real-life examples on a regular basis, so check this space! 

And of course, feel free to reach out to and let us know if we can help build a game plan for transforming old deserts into transit-friendly communities.

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