Laxmi Ramasubramanian, Hunter College Department of Urban Affairs and Planning
How can we understand the travel behaviors and mobility barriers experienced by low-income populations? The answer is both simple and complex at the same time, since it requires considering the entirety of individuals’ lives, not only their travel to and from their workplace. My research team and I gathered data from a relatively small sample of low income individuals through focus group interviews. We augmented the focus group data using additional detailed information provided by key individuals who participated in the preliminary discussions.
Expanding our inquiry to include non-work trips immediately revealed the difficult travel choices made by low-income households with limited commuting alternatives. Since low wage workers often engaged in shift-work, accommodating the 24-7 workday required accessing transportation services at non-peak hours including late night and early morning hours. Likewise, for those individuals juggling multiple responsibilities, including caregiving for elders and children whilst maintaining a rigid work schedule, life without access to a can be next to impossible. In some neighborhoods, nonprofit organizations and charity groups picked up the slack of providing practical transportation assistance. Many individuals relied on the kindness of friends and family to access essential services such as grocery shopping and visits to health care providers. These vivid spatio-temporal stories, from a small sample of participants, were very powerful and moving because they brought home the challenge of navigating a seemingly simple trip chain of routine activities – such as taking kids to school; go to work; pick up groceries on the way home – something professional planners often take for granted. When work is not flexible or set by regular business hours, travel barriers for low-income communities are often insurmountable.
My research team, working with the Urban Interactive Studio has developed a web-based application (available for beta testing at http://expandingactivityspace.org ) to help transform user-provided data into a communicative visualization tool that can describe the activity spaces of individuals and groups. We have developed a customized short survey that the user can take after registering on the site. The registration addresses privacy and ethical concerns because the individual controls the data they enter. The individual is invited to describe their activities on a typical day and the system transfers location information and geo-codes their data points on a map. We are able to visualize the travel paths (lines) and the activity spaces (polygons) that embed traversed locations over a period of time.
The individual can visualize their own data in two ways, first as a map that can show characteristics of destination locations (home, work, shopping etc.), paths (now represented as the crow flies, but potentially as routes along roads or transit networks), and modes of transport (represented by differently colored lines), and second as a graphical representation of their day, demonstrating the punctuation of different activities that fill up a typical day.
More importantly, the tool allows for advocacy groups to review data about their neighborhood or community at the zip code level, overlaying multiple trips and events to understand the neighborhood’s activity space at different times of the day. Further, the same data can also be represented in the form of charts to understand the travel behavior and activity spaces of different socio-demographic groups, e.g., seniors without access to a car versus seniors with access to a car. For community organizing and advocacy, such tools provide valuable insights and knowledge sharing about setting planning priorities. Since much planning is at the local level, this micro-level analysis and planning effort provides opportunities for individual and community empowerment.
Our research is a work in progress. It has been funded by a grant from the Federal Transit Administration’s Public Transportation Participation program and feedback, suggestions, and comments are welcomed.
The author can be reached at email@example.com