(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 382: Measuring Transport Insecurity

May 12, 2022

This week we’re joined by Alix Gould-Werth of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and Alex Murphy Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan to talk about their work on the topic of transportation insecurity. We chat about what went in to the creation of the transportation security index and why we haven’t yet created a federal program for individuals like food stamps or housing vouchers for transportation.

You can find their paper Developing a New Measure of Transportation Insecurity: An Exploratory Factor Analysis at the Survey Practice website.

They also have an article at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

To listen to the episode, you can find it at Streetsblog USA or our hosting archive.

Below is a full unedited transcript:

Jeff Wood (1m 27s):
Well, Alex Murphy and Alix Gould-Werth welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.

Alix Gould-Werth (1m 47s):
It’s great to be

Alex Murphy (1m 48s):
Here. Thanks for having us.

Jeff Wood (1m 49s):
Thanks for being on the show before we get started, as we always do. Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?

Alix Gould-Werth (1m 54s):
Sure. I can take it away. My name is Alix Gould-Werth. Just one of the two Alex’s that are here today. I currently work at the Washington center for Equitable Growth, which is a DC based think tank that tries to connect academic research to the policy world. And I am also trained as a sociologist

Alex Murphy (2m 13s):
And my name is Alex Murphy. I am currently an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the university of Michigan. Most of my research has really been ethnographic to date and really centered on place and poverty and inequality and race with a specific concentration on trying to understand the new suburban poverty. And that project has sort of led me to an interest in transportation and trying to dig in and understand more what I was seeing ethnographically in the field through hu measurements and quantitative data sets.

Jeff Wood (2m 44s):
So how did you all get into your professions, generally, sociology, transportation, all those things. What was your first kind of introduction to say, this is what I’m interested in, what I want to do?

Alix Gould-Werth (2m 53s):
Well, maybe I can start and I can kind of lead toward also how we met Alex, right to my grounding interest has always been issues of economic inequality and kind of how to, sometimes I say kind of globally, how to make poor people richer, rich people poor, but often focusing on the bottom of the income distribution. And I’ve always had an interest in social policy, but I thought, you know, before trying to make social policy, it would be important to actually like meet the people and work with the people that are social policies target. So my first job out of college was working with people with serious mental illness, many of whom are low income. And I found that job to be really interesting and rewarding. And one thing that I noticed was that even in New York city, where I was located, where there’s great kind of public transit infrastructure, and there’s even kind of a Rouge reduced fare program for some people with disabilities, transportation was a huge barrier that really prevented people from getting to the places that they needed to go and being able, you know, whether that was the doctor’s office to the program, to a job.

Alix Gould-Werth (3m 56s):
And that that issue wasn’t being talked about enough were met. Well, when I started graduate school at the university of Michigan studying sociology, I moved to the city of Detroit, which has a really different transit infrastructure than New York city to put it lightly. And there, I was just really struck by how extremely unreliable transportation was and how difficult, the lack of access to adequate transportation, whether that was because, you know, they, car insurance is so expensive in Detroit. The bus system is not reliable, what a huge impact that had on people’s ability to get to the places that they needed to go. And in some ways it was just really vivid and striking, you know, driving around in my car in the city of Detroit and seeing other people, you know, in negative five degree weather at night at a bus stop with no light waiting for a bus that may never come right.

Alix Gould-Werth (4m 49s):
That was very dark and shocking. And I noticed that in the world of sociology and the scholarship of poverty and inequality, very few people were talking very explicitly and centering transportation and their understanding of how poverty and inequality work. And so I was very excited when at Michigan, I met Alex who was thinking about these questions pretty deeply. And I don’t know if you want to take it from there, Alex.

Alex Murphy (5m 14s):
Sure. Yeah. So I arrived at this. I mean, I, I mean, I guess my interest in these subjects dates back to high school where I was spending a lot of time. I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I was sent to high school in the suburbs and spent a long time on a bus staring at my window at sort of different spatial patterns and becoming interested in the different ways people live. And then I did a bunch of work in Chicago and then public housing around that time and just became really interested in urban environments and questions about space and the built environment and how it shapes opportunities and inequality and hardships. And so that led me to be, I ended up going to college in New York city, mostly because I was really interested in using the city as a laboratory to further explore these questions.

Alex Murphy (5m 57s):
I ended up going to Barnard college and became an urban studies major. And so, I mean, sort of, you can see my trajectory never really, really shifted interests. And when I went to graduate school, I became really interested around that time that I went, there was some new reports coming out that were saying that the majority of low-income people were now living in the suburbs. And I got really interested in this question of like everything I had been learning to date had been focused on, you know, poverty in a city. And there’s so much research trying to understand, you know, what it’s like to be poor in the city. Why neighborhoods, why place matters, why place makes hardships, you know, low-income, people’s hardships even worse. And so I, you know, I was reading these reports and I was like, my mind was blowing.

Alex Murphy (6m 41s):
Cause I was thinking about, you know, by bus rides and high school and the suburbs. And I was like, there’s, I don’t have any mental frameworks for understanding these two things. Right. And so, so I got really interested in the subject of suburban poverty and I moved to a suburb outside of Pittsburgh for three and a half years and lived there and was studying the community. It was studying people who are living below the poverty line there. And I mean, it won’t surprise you that one of the biggest challenges that people face was transportation. And I sort of knew that because I, you know, in his discussions around suburban poverty, that’s always the thing that people, most site. But I think spending, you know, I was spending days weeks with people who didn’t have a car living in a suburb that was a post-war bedroom suburb that was really built for middle class people throughout my time in the field, public transit was whittled away slowly.

Alex Murphy (7m 27s):
It was basically cut in half over time. And so I got to see how people sort of adjusted to those changes. And I was just really moved by the profound way that getting around and not being able to get around. She had people’s lives that it wasn’t just about whether they could go to the grocery store and get to work. It was like how they related to their neighbors, how they asked, you know, just that the need to ask people for rides, you know, and sort of the social, psychological dimensions of, of that. I was, you know, moved by the way that just being able to move independently shapes how you think about yourself and your ability to provide for your family and your ability to be independent and how important that that is. And I, you know, like Alex said, I felt like I hadn’t seen any of this in at least in this is a logical literature that, that transportation really wasn’t touched on.

Alex Murphy (8m 13s):
And so, you know, when we, when we both ended up at Michigan together, we started having conversations about why aren’t we seeing more of this, you know, like sociologists tend to education, the mass incarceration, they said, study and employment is studied neighborhoods, given that transportation is such a big deal to people, not just in the suburbs, right, as Alex was saying in Detroit and in New York, why is not this not a more central focus of, of sociological study? And, and, and that really got our wheels turning and, and got us into the work that we’re doing now. You know, one of the things that I think we surmised was as we looked at the literature on what does exist, we felt like part of the issue is just that there’s not adequate measures for capturing the thing that we were seeing, that a lot of the work, at least in the social sciences were around the spatial mismatch hypothesis and thought, thought about distance.

Alex Murphy (9m 0s):
And a lot of survey researchers know a lot of sociologists are survey researchers and a lot of the tools that they use to understand transportation or like car ownership, measurements. And we were seeing in both of our work, we were seeing that, you know, car ownership is one dimension of people’s ability to get around, but there’s, but you know, people who have cars are unable to get around a lot of time, people who don’t have cars have sometimes are able to get around by walking on public transit and things like that. We started reading some of the urban planning literature and thought a lot about sort of what that was getting us and not getting us in terms of what we were seeing on the ground. And that literature is really great for trying to understand, you know, accessibility at the neighborhood level. But the thing that we were seeing is that there was wide variety in people within their own neighborhoods.

Alex Murphy (9m 44s):
You know, you would have one person who could get in their car could use public transit because they had the health to do so where they didn’t have small children and they were highly mobile. And you had another person right next door who, who couldn’t take advantage of those opportunities, who didn’t have the health to do that. And so we felt like there was a lot that was missing. And we also felt like we wanted to bring sociologists attention to, especially to this issue, because like Alex said, you know, it’s interesting when you talk to people, they kind of nod their heads and they’re like, of course transportation matters, but they don’t realize how sort of auxiliary we tend to study it. Like, it’s like, oh yeah, it matters. It’s a variable we control in our models or it’s, we always cited as a barrier to getting to these other things that are important, but we never explicitly study it itself.

Alex Murphy (10m 27s):
And so that’s how the conversation evolved.

Jeff Wood (10m 29s):
Do you think that’s one of the issues is that we understand it in its silos, but we don’t necessarily understand it from that underlying aspect. I mean, you came up with the idea of transport insecurity and that’s kind of a different way of looking at things. And so do you think that’s part of the problem is, is the separation of in siloization of the topics and maybe not looking at it at that deeper sociological level?

Alix Gould-Werth (10m 50s):
Yeah. I mean, I think the silos are a big deal. I also think a lot of the time, you know, both of you can correct me if I’m wrong about this, because I’m not as well steeped in the urban planning literature. But often we think about kind of bigger systems when we’re thinking about transportation, where are we putting down a highway? How fast is the average car going? What is the average distance to the bus stop? But we don’t have as precise individual level measures. So that’s missing definitely from sociology cause we haven’t centered transportation. And I also wonder if in other disciplines there’s less of an individual level focus, which creates some data limitations on understanding what the experience of an individual is and kind of having the, I don’t know, statistical freedom to break down and look at different subgroups of individuals when you can actually see how one specific person is experiencing access to adequate transportation or not.

Alex Murphy (11m 46s):
I think also just different disciplines are just in different questions. Right? And so I think if you, my reading of the urban planning literature is like, they’re actually very interested in modes of transit as a policy response, right? And so if you’re interested in car ownership or bus transit lines or bicycles, you’re interested in like, you know, what modes should we make available to people what really matters for people’s lives? And those are really important questions, but what, what I think we thought that they were missing or, you know, and I think a lot of that literature also thinks about destinations and you know, for a lot of that literature employment has been the key destination where they thought about accessibility and starting to think a little bit more about different kinds of destinations. But I think, you know, our interest in this really came from hanging out with people who are having a hard time getting around.

Alex Murphy (12m 29s):
And we felt like when you take the question of mobility from the perspective of the individual, you know, destinations are kind of not as important and mode is not important, but like mobility, the ability to move itself is what we really felt like was missing. And we wanted to be able to figure out how to capture and think about like, can people, regardless of how, you know, where they live, regardless of the motor transit, can people just get around and get to the places that they need to go. And if that is like the underlying question we’re interested in, how do we back out of that and figure out how to capture that?

Jeff Wood (13m 2s):
Yeah. I think that’s a really important point because I think you all mentioned in your work and I’ve seen a number of different places from different folks as well, that, you know, we often complain about there’s only the census journey to work and it doesn’t get to those deeper level questions of why people are having a hard time getting places, not just work. And also work is only like what 19% of trips. So, but everybody does it at the same time a day. And so it’s a really big focus, but at the same time, there are those interpersonal reasons why people are moving in certain directions during any time of day. And I think that that ease of data makes it easier to study certain things and harder to study other things, which I think there’s something that you all came across as well. How much does that play into what you guys are trying to an earth?

Jeff Wood (13m 45s):
I mean, you know, how hard is it to get these questions and find out the information from individuals, if individual information is harder to collect?

Alix Gould-Werth (13m 53s):
Yeah, no it’s complicated, right? Because there are so many different factors that affect whether an individual has access to transportation in the way that they need to. So I think a lot of times people are tempted to ask about every single variable that could influence your ability to get to the places you need to go. So do you have a car? Does the car run, do you have insurance for the car? Do you have a driver’s license? Can you afford guests? Oh, you don’t have a car. Do you have a bicycle? Are you in physical health to ride your bike? Is there a bike lane? What about the bus? How far away is the bus stop? Like it goes on and on and on. And so trying to measure every single factor that could influence whether a person can travel seems to be a fool’s errand.

Alix Gould-Werth (14m 39s):
There’s just too much nuance. And, you know, even if someone may be on paper, it looks like they could walk to where they need to go, but maybe they just hate walking and they’re never going to do it. You know? So it’s, it’s really hard to ask all the right to get that granular individual specific measure of do they have access to the transportation they need? Are they, as we call it transportation secure. And I guess we use the term transportation secure because when we were trying to think about how to develop a good measurement tool, we drew on the food security index as our inspiration. So the food security index is a measure that doesn’t try to actually, you know, capture how many calories are going in and out and what your caloric need is.

Alix Gould-Werth (15m 20s):
But really just asking you questions about your own experience, to see if you have access to the food that you need. So as skiing, if you know, you ran out of food before the month was over, if you skipped meals, kind of what your children’s experience with food is. And so we thought like this is a pretty clever strategy to, you know, capture the symptoms of the issue rather than trying to kind of measure every little input into the underlying condition. So we wanted to develop a measurement that would kind of parallel this, but looking at transportation security rather than food security. And so from there, we kind of began the process of thinking about what are the symptoms of transportation security that we could ask people about no matter whether they, you know, have the option to bike or are reliant on a car or whatever, to really understand, are they able to get to the places they need to go?

Jeff Wood (16m 13s):
And how did you get to the first iteration of this index that you’ve created the transportation security index? What were the first steps like in putting together something that could actually qualify the information that you thought you needed to attain?

Alex Murphy (16m 25s):
So we started with our own work. We started with Alex’s work in Detroit and my work in Pittsburgh. And we just said like, okay, based on what we were observing, what are the symptoms? And we started to list them out. And then we reached out to people, to nonprofit organizations, to social workers, to people who are also working with low-income populations in urban, rural, and suburban areas and ask them about what kind of symptoms that they were seeing. And so we came up with sort of a list of topics and, or, or symptoms. And then we sat down and wrote some questions. And I think we had, I think our first sort of iteration had 26 questions of symptoms and it turns out like one of the things that I really learned in this process is that it’s really hard to make a simple survey question that, you know, whenever I take a survey, I take it and I’m like, this is a dumb question.

Alex Murphy (17m 14s):
Like, you know, this doesn’t capture anything that I would actually say, but actually like there’s a huge science and there’s a lot of work that goes into this. So once we had these questions, we basically went through this process of conducting what survey researchers call cognitive interviews and cognitive interviews are interviews that are specifically aiming at understanding whether the people who are taking your questions are understanding what you are trying to ask them. And whether you are actually getting information that you think that you are when they say yes to a question. So we have this slew of questions that were our symptoms, some of the questions, very similar to one another, like we had questions like in the last 30 days, how often have you felt stuck at home because of problems with transportation then in the last 30 days, how often have you felt trapped at home in the last 30 days?

Alex Murphy (18m 2s):
Because of perhaps transportation, we were trying to sort of understand what is actually, you know, what, which way do you phrase things that capture what people are feeling? And so we had this, our questions and we went out and we conducted interviews with 52 different people in urban, rural and suburban areas. And we asked them our questions. You basically asked them the questions. And then you ask people as they’re reading the questions or they’re thinking through them to articulate out loud what they’re thinking about when they’re answering the question. So when I asked you in the last few days, have you skipped a trip because of problems with transportation and you say, you know, and the options are sometimes rarely never. And you say sometimes, you know, I ask you, tell me when you thought about skipping trips, what kind of trips did you think about?

Alex Murphy (18m 43s):
What did you mean by skip trips? Can you tell me one that you did in the last 30 days when you say sometimes what does that mean? So that helped us refine questions. It helped us get rid of questions that didn’t work. You know, we had a whole slew of questions that were about policing and how, you know, people who might be walking or driving cars that are old, you know, might feel or people who people of color might feel like they’re targeted specifically because of their order of transportation or their race. We had a whole slew of questions about whether, you know, like Alex alluded to, you know, driving through Detroit, you see people who are walking and standing outside for the bus and negative five degree wintry days, you know, or people are sweating as they’re walking in heat. You know, w that seemed to be a symptom of transportation security.

Alex Murphy (19m 24s):
One of the things we learned in these cognitive interviews is that there’s just some questions that are too complicated for people to understand, or that the different ways that people understand just don’t get you the kind of data you need. And so we ended up dropping some of those. We also realized through this process that there were things that are actually really hard to capture about transportation. So one of the things we, you know, unlike food, where you need food, you know, when you’re hungry, you know, you know, your stomach tells you, you don’t need it. You know, transportation is sort of just a different phenomenon. And one of the things we were learning through this process is that not having transportation can sort of people start to think differently about their trips, right. And will their options for going. And so if you haven’t gone places because you can’t go places, you start rather than saying like, no, I don’t, I, I skipped a trip.

Alex Murphy (20m 8s):
You start to think like, I didn’t skip a trip. I just don’t go on trips. Right. So you, so we would find that people would answer, oh no, I never skipped trips. And then as they would be talking out loud about all the trips that they would have taken had they had transportation, you know, you realize like they skipped a ton of trips, but in their mind, they just, those trips weren’t options. And so we crafted a bunch of questions that tried to get at those people, you know, questions like in the last few days, have you had to reschedule a trip that you had or things like that. So after that process, you know, we had refined our questions and we had new questions, we dropped some questions. And I think that, yeah, maybe that’s when we were left with 26 questions that we then fielded an original survey and had an over sample of people who are living below the poverty line.

Alex Murphy (20m 50s):
And we we’ve been working with a fabulous survey expert. Her name is Jamie Griffin, who is an expert in psychometric analysis and started to look at how these questions hang together and where in potentially build an index and try to tap into transportation insecurity itself.

Jeff Wood (21m 8s):
So you had to cut it down, you ended up cutting it down to 16 questions. How do you get to the point where you feel like you’re, you’re good and you’re set in, in the final questions, because you did go through that process of whittling down, figuring out which questions were not quite working for folks. I’m also interested in that issue of things being too complicated. Cause I think sometimes we do make things a little bit more complicated or it’s inside baseball. I mean, I think a lot of the folks that listen to his podcast are inside baseball for the most part. But I think that’s part of the problem too, or is the acronyms or the too much information or the depth that goes into it. I’m curious about kind of some of that issue and why that came out when you’re doing the whittling of questions.

Alix Gould-Werth (21m 42s):
Well, I guess maybe there’s a few different ways to think about it. One is right when you’re asking a survey question, you not only want to capture like the reading level that most people are at, but you want to make it a lot easier than their reading level because you don’t want to create any sort of burden. So we worked a lot with the survey methodologists at the beginning, just to figure out what is the concept and what are the simplest words that we could use to describe what issue people might be facing. So like an example of, one of our questions is in the past 30 days, how often did you skip going somewhere because of a problem with transportation. So we worked a lot to figure out how can we talk about, you know, a foregone trip is probably how we started talking about it and how we can, how can we get this into simpler language?

Alix Gould-Werth (22m 26s):
But then I think we also kind of had like blinders on in some ways. So like, whether it’s a good example, right? We were thinking like, I have this powerful image in my mind, if someone who is exposed to the elements in Detroit, that is not necessarily a common experience across the broad population. So if you ask someone about whether they’re going to think about, you know, when the road was icy and that made them not want to drive in to wherever they had to go or when it was raining. And so they didn’t want to, you know, get on their bike or whatever, there’s just like a lot of different. We had to kind of zoom out and see what the full population would think about. Some of these experiences.

Alix Gould-Werth (23m 6s):
Another good example is about being late because of a problem with transportation. So we had, in our mind images of people who, you know, would sit and they would plot out a really complicated commute, you know, like I’ll get a ride from my neighbor to this bus stop, and then I’ll take a three bus transfer and I’ll try to get to this place. And if anyone like of that journey, doesn’t work out. I’m going to be half an hour late to this really important appointment I had or something like that. Or maybe just to like hang out with a friend, because that is really important too. In reality, a lot of people are like, man, you know, traffic was terrible. And I was late to this thing, you know, someone who just had a car and could go place to place, but there was like some congestion on the road.

Alix Gould-Werth (23m 50s):
So I think, whereas maybe people who are used to looking kind of more broadly at the full population might overlook some of the diamond mix that people that Alex and I were spending time with were facing in terms of how transportation systems are not serving their needs. Like you might just assume it’s easy to get a car for a lot of people. It’s really not because of all kinds of barriers for us, we were kind of focused on the barriers that some of the people we had spent time with were facing. And so when we wrote questions that are designed to be useful across the entire population, we had to think about how to kind of weed out those false positives.

Alex Murphy (24m 26s):
Another thing, another way that our questions changed was originally all of our questions had, you know, we are both people who are interested in largely poverty and we were interested in the ways that financial restraints might shape people’s ability to get around. So all of our questions had some dimension of like in the last 30 days, were you late getting somewhere because you couldn’t afford the transportation you needed or you couldn’t afford better transportation. And what we found in these cognitive interviews is that people would say, no, it’s not because I couldn’t afford better transportation. It’s because the buses are really bad. You know? And, and in our mind how we were thinking about this was like, yeah, if you were a rich person, you get in an Uber, right. Or you’d have other options. And so you wouldn’t be doing this, but that’s not the way people on the ground were thinking. They were thinking about here’s all the ways that like the modes that we’re taking are crappy and that has nothing to do with my money, or they would disentangle sort of their financial situation from having to take those.

Alex Murphy (25m 16s):
So we ended up taking all reference to affordability and money as for the reasons people were experiencing these symptoms out. And, you know, that means that researchers who want to use our index are going to have to look at, you know, what people’s financial picture is, how it relates to, to insecurity itself an interesting part of our work and interesting journey that we’ve been on in sort of sharing our work with other people is so our questions have we think about our questions to sort of falling into three different buckets. One are material questions that are a lot about time and you know, like where are you late getting somewhere? Did you have to arrive early because of your ride? Did you have to skip going someplace? Did you have to reschedule? But we also saw in our work that a manifestation or a symptom of transportation security relates to people’s social lives and social relationships.

Alex Murphy (26m 4s):
So people, you know, a lot of people use or rely on friends and family and neighbors and coworkers to get around. And so we had seen that for people who do that, they experience a lot of stress and strain around asking people for rides. Some people say that they worry about being a burden. Some people feel like they don’t get invited places because people know they have bad transportation. And there’s also a whole other dimension. That’s more sort of emotional and psychological around people feeling bad that they don’t have good transportation or feeling left out. Right. And we thought that these were at least for the people that we were interacting with and observing and talking to these were just as important as all the kinds of things around not getting to their destinations or being late. So a lot of our questions have these social, psychological to them.

Alex Murphy (26m 45s):
And I think people are often surprised by that. You know, sometimes people say we want to use your index, but we can’t use all of the questions. So can we just use, you know, all the ones that have nothing to do with people’s feelings or their social relations and in our analysis, even in our quantitative analysis, we’ve seen that these dimensions are part of the same construct as the material dimensions. It’s part of being transportation insecurity. It’s just as important as, you know, being late and, you know, skipping trips and not going to your destinations. And I think for me, this is a really important point. And I think one of the ways I think sociology can contribute to this conversation is that there are dimensions that I think some people would think are soft dimensions that don’t matter as much transportation that in fact really do in our raisins people, you know, it can help us understand insecurity in ways I think that are often missed or overlooked, or just kind of thought of as not important as some of the other things

Jeff Wood (27m 37s):
That’s okay. I mean, that’s a good question. Why, why would people want to take out the social aspects of it, the questions about embarrassment, for example, or anything along those lines, why would they want to take, because they are trying to separate it from feelings or is it because they feel like feelings don’t matter? I don’t, I’m kind of confused about why they would do. I mean, I, I feel like that would happen, but curious what they told you as to why they would want to take out the social aspects of it.

Alex Murphy (27m 59s):
I think it’s just a foreign way of thinking about this. You know, I think when we think about transportation, when we think about, can you access your destinations? Are you late? Do you skip trips? It’s I don’t think people, I mean, part of it is that the people who are asking these questions have real survey constraints, right. They can’t put 16 questions on, so I’m trying to whittle them down. They’re trying to prioritize what questions. And interestingly, the thing that we found is that, you know, the questions that we have that they’re most interested, like related to time questions about being late or arriving early, those questions often are actually in some ways the weakest questions in the index, because they’re actually also capturing middle-class people that kind of people that Alex talked about, transportation, secure people who are like, yeah, I had to spent a long time in transit because you know, the highway was congested.

Alex Murphy (28m 45s):
And so I had bad traffic and that’s not really what we’re trying to pick up. So I think it’s just, it’s a different way of thinking. One of our questions is about, you know, in the last few days, how often have you worried about transportation? You know, there are people, this is a very real concern in survey research as well. Okay. Maybe if people say, answer that question, affirmatively, you’re just picking out people who are worriers and they’re worrying about everything. And so like maybe, you know, maybe people just feel left out in general. Maybe they feel bad in general and it’s not really related to transportation. So there’s some questions about what are you actually measuring? I think some people have those kinds of concerns.

Alix Gould-Werth (29m 20s):
Yeah. So I think like that subjectivity is like one thing, right? So, you know, some of our question, if it’s, how often did you worry or how often did you feel bad? People think like this is not something that is concrete and measurable the way like you actually didn’t go to a place, but I think there’s also right, a bias in our policy making and the outcomes that we think are important. So there’s a reason that our literature has focused so much on employment outcomes is because we’re trying to, you know, grow the economy and have good GDP and make all the widgets. And if you’re feeling sad while you’re making the widget, like a policy maker may not care.

Alix Gould-Werth (30m 1s):
I think people are just starting to understand how it’s really important to keep people healthy in order to make the economy function. But people’s health in and of itself is just not as prominent a policy outcome as some of these other outcomes that we focus on. So when it comes to being late or missing a trip, it feels concrete, it feels objective and it feels related to something that’s not as squishy or as touchy feely as someone’s feelings, that it doesn’t seem like a good policy outcome to make someone feel less lonely. But I think what folks are missing is, well, one, I think like a lot of Alex’s work makes the case that these feelings are incredibly important to the way our society works.

Alix Gould-Werth (30m 43s):
But even if you don’t care about feelings at all, and you think of people as automatons or, you know, we’re not trying to actually measure someone’s feelings, we’re trying to capture symptoms of transportation insecurity to get at this latent construct. So if you remove the feelings questions, you’re actually removing one of our best tools for understanding if a person is transportation, secure transportation insecure,

Jeff Wood (31m 8s):
There’s a bunch of topics on here that are really interesting. There’s losing wages or getting fired due to being late to work. There’s getting denied care at the doctors or denied resources at social services office due to being late for going, spending on essentials like food and medications due to the cost of vehicle ownership, foregoing trips, to resources and services like workforce training and healthy cooking classes, lack of community cohesion due to feeling socially isolated, feeling bad about inconveniencing, friends and family worrying about all of the above things. So I think that encompasses a lot of those quote unquote feelings. Do you all have one that, that you think was the most interesting that you came up with or that you found was something that you were surprised at the result when people answered the question?

Alix Gould-Werth (31m 49s):
Can I make a small clarification, which is, I think some of the things, well, I don’t, maybe it’s obvious to everyone else for how you pose the question, but I just want to make it clear that some of the outcomes that you listed are kind of research outcomes, dependent variables, like did you forego wages, but they’re not actually questions in the index because we’ve worked really hard to remove those so that we can just get at questions that will tap into this latent variable. And then we can use the index to study its associations with these outcomes. So that’s the clarification. And then my question is, are you more interested in like the outcomes that we find most fascinating or like our favorite TSI question? Both.

Alex Murphy (32m 29s):
I mean, I, well, okay. I have a favorite question. And then, then I have something that I think would be interesting to get into this conversation, which is sort of favorite puzzles that were puzzling over. And, and, but that is really interesting and probably to your listenership. So one of the questions I think is most important it’s in the last three days, have you not been able to leave your house because of problems with transportation? And one of the things that a lot of people in the transportation world have been really grappling with, trying to figure out is how to measure unmet demand, all the trips people don’t take. And in a lot of models that we use, a lot of measurements are completely dependent on the actual travel behavior, right? So we’d like, look at commute time where we look at when they’re in commute, we don’t know when they’re not right.

Alex Murphy (33m 13s):
And so I think that question we have found it was really able to get at that group of people, for whom, you know, they are not getting around it. They have forgone trips. They are, you know, if you want to target a public transit stop or, you know, some kind of intervention, those are the people who answer affirmatively to that question are the most who are that’s the unmet demand. And I think that that’s something that’s really special about this measure, that we can kind of capture that in a way that’s not, I think an experience just thinking about cognitive interviews that we’ve had, you know, one of the questions and the response to one of the questions we had, I think really sits with me. We have this question about the last 30 days, how often have you felt left out because of problems with transportation and the way that we hadn’t been conceptualizing this was left out of social interactions, left out that people aren’t inviting you things, you know, if you’re, there’s a family reunion and you can’t go because you don’t have transportation or whatever it is.

Alex Murphy (34m 6s):
And in a cognitive interview with someone that I was pressing them on, what they’ve thought about when they thought about left out and they said, I feel left out of society. I feel like I can’t be a full participant. I, I, I’m missing out on, you know, having a full life where I can do what I want when I want and see people. And I think that, you know, that the fact that they attributed that to the transportation situation, I think speaks profoundly to, to just how much transportation matters for being full citizens and being able to participate in all kinds of things, whether it’s work or going to city council or being able to actually go and protest, not having a bus. Right. All these kinds of things being civically engaged.

Alix Gould-Werth (34m 45s):
Yeah. Well, I think mine is not as profound as yours at all, but I will say that one that I’m just like really partial to, is this question that reads in the past 30 days, how often did you have to arrive somewhere early and wait because of the schedule, if the bus train or person giving you a ride. And I think the reason that I like this one is because I think it’s something that doesn’t often occur to people, right? Like we often think of being late or having like a difficult commute, but that, you know, it was from our observation and conversations with people that we learned that this was a really common strategy that when you are a transportation insecure, the transportation options available to you don’t meet your needs.

Alix Gould-Werth (35m 28s):
So you’re often going to end up with, you know, 30 minutes to kill in an awkward way before whatever you were going to started. And so, yeah, I, I liked the nuance of that question.

Jeff Wood (35m 40s):
That’s interesting because as someone who doesn’t own a car in San Francisco, there’s a number of times where I, because of the bus schedule and it comes pretty frequently. Like every 10, 15 minutes. It’s not something that troubles me too often, but there’s times when we’ll get to somewhere early, because I’m worried that I don’t want to be late. And so even as somebody, I, I feel like I’m transport secure, but even if somebody is transport secure, I feel like that is a frustrating thing as well. So I’m wondering how you kind of separate those out between somebody who might be insecure and somebody who is secure, but annoyed at the way that the system doesn’t deliver the on-time results that maybe a car does. Okay.

Alix Gould-Werth (36m 14s):
Yeah. So I think one thing to note is that our measure is continuous, right? So there are some people who may experience some of these barriers to more and less degrees. And then we’ve also done some work to create kind of cut points to create categorical groups. So there are people who might have more moderate insecurity and maybe experienced these issues sometimes, or just one or two of the issues often. And then there are some people who are experiencing all of the issues often. And so we’d be able to move a person to that severe group. So if we gave you the 16 item measure, and then you’d say, well, sometimes I am waiting a little earlier, you would have a score of one out of 32.

Alix Gould-Werth (36m 54s):
So we’d be able to put you in that lower group. But also maybe there are a few more things that kind of are adding up and we’d end up sticking you in that moderate group. But one thing that we’ve been talking about this is a puzzle is thinking about, is there really a group that somewhere before moderate transportation insecurity, but not quite totally secure that we might consider like transportation inconvenienced, right? Someone who’s making a choice to use the bicycle or public transit. They have financial resources to be able to when they really need to call a cab or something like that. But maybe the transit infrastructure is not really built with them in mind. And so they’re running into kind of things that we’d more consider an inconvenience than an insecurity.

Alix Gould-Werth (37m 38s):
And that’s really an important group to capture just because you can afford a car and insurance and all the things that you need to drive it. Maybe there is a lot of congestion in the highway and you’re kind of having some issues, getting to the places that you need to go. So that’s not our primary focus, but it’s something I would say, Alex, that we have talked about. Yeah,

Alex Murphy (37m 57s):
Well, one, you probably aren’t anticipating, but I think it’s interesting to talk about is, so we, in 2018, we feel that a nationally representative survey and we have, and that we did that to replicate and validate our 16 item question. And so we found that we did that. So that’s just one way of talking about how like the index is, is validated and it’s, and that’s all great. And, but one of the things we have is we have data to look at who’s transportation, security, who’s not. And a preview is we’re finding that one in four people in the us over the age of 22 are transportation insecure. And that is significantly more than people who are food insecure adults, which is around 12%. But then when we look at who actually of those 25% of people are insecure, and we find that people who live below the poverty line are more likely to be people who don’t own cars are more likely to be people who are younger.

Alex Murphy (38m 47s):
People who live in urban areas and people who have less than a high school degree are more likely to be transportation insecure. And one of the, and there’s two things that sort of stand out to us about this is that we are not finding high rates of insecurity among people among seniors. And we’re not finding high rates among people who live in rural areas. So we find that transportation security is higher in suburban areas and rural areas. And so this has kind of been a big question, mark, for us about what is explaining this, is there something wrong with our index, you know, in the food insecurity next for people who have children, they added a subset of question. So you can better capture people who are food insecure and with children, or is there something about our understanding of these populations that maybe we’ve, we’ve been missing?

Alex Murphy (39m 32s):
And they’re actually not as insecure as we might, we might imagine, or, you know, we’ve also been reading, there’s been a couple of studies that have come across recently talking about rural population saying that actually real people say that they don’t need to take as many trips as we might expect. And so that may be explaining why they’re reporting to be less transportation secure because they don’t actually have as many places to go. And so anyways, this is a puzzle we really want to tease apart and think through in the future. I mean, I’m curious what you think does that surprise you? That we’re all people and seniors are not as transportation insecure as we might think?

Jeff Wood (40m 6s):
Well, Hmm. I mean, it’s interesting. So when I think about seniors, I’ll go to my, which I think listeners know that I’ve talked about a number of times, but I have a grandmother who lives in the east bay. Who’s 109 years old and probably about 20 years ago, 30 years ago, she’d started losing her eyesight and gave her keys to my sister. So she wouldn’t drive anymore. But during that time, she would use the county connection, which is the local paratransit to go to her hair appointments and things like that. But over time more trips were, you know, my sister would go to pick her up. My mom and dad moved back in town and they do a lot of her errands for her at this time. She doesn’t besides going to my parents’ house on Sunday afternoon for dinner and maybe go into the dentist or the hairdresser, like she used to, she doesn’t really go anywhere.

Jeff Wood (40m 49s):
She doesn’t have any place to go, or she wants to go necessarily. I’m sure that she would love to go many places, but it might be that where she probably just doesn’t make those trips anymore. And she doesn’t feel like she, you know, she, or maybe she just doesn’t go in those directions anymore. It’s just, when you get older, your, your friend groups, and this is something I noticed her too, is like her friend group started passing away. I mean, when you’re a hundred, nine years old, your, your friends all over, unfortunately they disappear and your family is still there obviously, but she doesn’t have a bridge day anymore. She doesn’t have the places to be, or the places to go to be seen or anything along those lines. So maybe it just kind of fades away over time and that you have your friends and the people that you keep your company with.

Jeff Wood (41m 30s):
And you can always ask for them for a ride. And maybe you don’t feel like you’re a burden on them. Or, you know, this is just off the top of my head. I don’t know if this is actually true or not. I’m just kind of one of those things that’s coming to my mind. The other thing I’m thinking of is with rising housing prices in urban areas and kind of the issue of escalating rents and things like that, that is pushing people outside of their urban core, where transportation might be actually more accessible. They’re moving to places like the suburbs. The suburbs might have more of an insecurity issue than say the rural areas where people aren’t, aren’t really being pushed to the rural areas or urban areas where people have this access to good transportation. So it might be tied to all these other socioeconomic things that are happening in the country right now.

Jeff Wood (42m 12s):
I mean, that’s the first thing that came to my mind is we’re talking about a lot of people moving to the suburbs and, and this kind of great migration that’s happening because of the pandemic where people are resorting a little bit. And that’s, that’s an interesting focus as well from the transportation perspective is when you move to a suburb, when you used to live in a city, you know, how do you get around? How are you accessing the things that you need to access, whether it’s healthcare or other things, and that might be different from the urban and rural perspective, something to chew on, I guess.

Alex Murphy (42m 41s):
Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s just something that related to your grandmother, we’ve kind of talked about as maybe older people, aren’t taking trips. Cause they just don’t feel safe going outside. Right. And it doesn’t actually have anything to do with their transportation. I think there’s lots, we need more qualitative data to really dig through this. And I think you’re right. You know, one of the things we’re interested in doing is looking at our data and looking at, okay, so we know we have these estimates of how, you know, the shares of people in urban, suburban and rural areas that are insecure. What about being in these different places makes them insecure. You could imagine that in a suburb it’s very different. It might be more related to the built environment than the public transit accessibility in rural areas. You know, it might look completely different. And so if we want from a policy angle to address transportation security, each of these geographic geographies might require different interventions.

Alex Murphy (43m 26s):
So yeah, I think there’s, there’s a ton to be explored. And in this area,

Jeff Wood (43m 30s):
That’s the question I have for you all is in it from a policy perspective is like, say, say the, the infrastructure bill that was just passed, like from a transportation insecure mindset or lens, like what would be a way to kind of spend money in a way that would actually maybe help people become more secure. If there was an opportunity to do that, obviously it’s passed and we’re spending a ton of money on roads and people listen to this podcast or like me probably annoyed. It had a lot of the stuff that’s happening, but I’m curious from a policy perspective, how you would see people from that perspective, making decisions that actually were positive outcomes for folks that might be transportation insecure.

Alix Gould-Werth (44m 9s):
Yeah. So I think to be good objective researchers, and to say like, what would actually help overcome transportation insecurity? I think we would say, we don’t know yet what we hope this measure can do it’s to be used with evaluation. So, you know, there are people who argue that building a highway is exactly what people in the urban core need to like have their transportation ameliorated. Well, now we have a nice tool to do pre and post tests and areas that do and do not get these highways and kind of get some good information about whether or not that works. And what’s also really nice about having an individual level measure is you can also collect information about someone’s demographic characteristics so we could understand better how it differential effects being experienced by racial group or gender or other groups that we might be interested in.

Alix Gould-Werth (45m 0s):
And then we could also use the measure for evaluating programs that give people access to free public transit or programs that give people access to cars. You know, I know that there’s like a very lively debate about what is going to be most successful, especially when you look at low income people for addressing their transportation needs. One of the main reasons we made this tool is so that it can be used to evaluate which interventions are successful and which aren’t.

Alex Murphy (45m 29s):
Yeah. One of our taglines we like to use is like, we want policies to move people from transportation insecurity, transportation security. And so the real question is what are those going to be again, I think it really depends on where people are living, right, and not just urban, rural or suburban, but you know, if you’re living in New York versus Detroit versus new Orleans, you know, or if you’re living in a cold climate versus someplace, that’s warm all the time. Like there’s a lot of variables across different cities, different geographies, but I will say that just as an observation, I think it’s important to think about the fact that transportation is an area where at the federal level, there is no individual level program that really helps people with transportation.

Alex Murphy (46m 9s):
You know, if the USDA has food stamps, department of housing, urban development, and has, you know about your programs where people can use vouchers to live in neighborhoods where they’re paying market rent, you know, we do have programs that help people with their energy, with all kinds of things, but there’s no individual level program for transportation at the department of transportation. And so, you know, I don’t know what we do with that, but I think it’s an observation we’re thinking about that we think about pouring money into infrastructure, not into people. And, you know, we could imagine what would it mean? What would it look like to pour some of those dollars into people to maybe enable them to use infrastructure? But, you know, I think that also plays a role in why we haven’t had to date an index like this.

Alex Murphy (46m 52s):
You know, we, we started this conversation talking about silos and disciplines, but I think also, you know, one reason that I think the food insecurity index got really developed by the, the USDA department of agriculture was that it helps them understand and evaluate to Alex’s point. You know, how much are, you know, we’re spending X amount of money on food stamps and food programs. How, what are we getting? You know, what kind of bang for our buck are we getting, are we actually, you know, addressing issues of hunger and food insecurity? And we can see that we are because we haven’t had those individual level programs. I think that’s also why we haven’t had these kinds of metrics because there’s been no need to sort measure individual level interventions in the same kind of way.

Jeff Wood (47m 33s):
I think it’s interesting because our interventions are covering so many different topics, right? So you have a poverty reduction, you have access to jobs, you have access to healthcare, you have access to access generally to friends and family, those types of things. But it’s hard to, like you said, it’s kind of hard to find one simple, like a food stamp to give to somebody to be like here. Here’s the thing that allows you to get to your healthcare appointments. Here’s the thing that allows you. You can have a transit pass. Well, maybe that doesn’t get to your, to your friends. It’s hard to think about that. And, and it’s interesting to think from that perspective, what a high level thing might, might actually do. There’s a program right now in Oakland, a universal, basic mobility that they’re testing. They’re piloting where they’re giving people, you know, a certain amount of credit on a card that can be used on any transportation to get anywhere that they want to go.

Jeff Wood (48m 16s):
And they found that people were more likely to make trips. And so those types of things, and there’s the whole discussion about free transit, whether, you know, some folks are for it and some people are against it for a number of different reasons, whether that’s, you know, we should be spending our money on frequency or anything else, but that’s discussion is happening. And I think some of that discussion is happening as kind of a proxy for this larger discussion about insecurity and trying to get people places rather than being targeted. It’s actually just kind of covering the sky on the topic rather than kind of on the ground level. And it’s interesting to think about how many of these discussions are trying to get at that question that you all are trying to answer, but maybe miss the Mark A. Little bit, or they’re trying to get there, but they can’t quite, it’s not quite there. And so it’s interesting to think about that, how those all come together from that perspective, too.

Jeff Wood (48m 59s):
It’s interesting to see all of these things kind of be focused, but not necessarily on the thing that maybe helps people the most.

Alex Murphy (49m 7s):
You know, I, I think we need a lot more work around sort of the psychology of mobility and the perceptions of weighting and the perceptions of, of the trade-offs. Because I think that, that, you know, in the same way that we’re learning that we needed more social sciences to understand why people would take backs up vaccines. You know, we didn’t just meet the vaccine. I think we, we similarly need to know much more about how people think and operate and feel to really be able to address insecurity in a way that’s going to really move the mark.

Jeff Wood (49m 33s):
So what’s next for you all what’s next on the, on the docket to make this a standard questionnaire in all MPO surveys and maybe other places where it needs to be.

Alix Gould-Werth (49m 45s):
So the thing that I’m really excited about is that 16 questions is a lot of questions, right? Anyone who administered a survey like there looks at panic and dollar signs flash in their eyes because it’s so expensive to administer 16 questions. So we’re working on getting it to be more parsimonious. We’re seeing, you know, is there a subset of say three questions that would have almost the same explanatory power as the full suite of 16 questions? And can we offer that to people as a tool when they don’t have as much space on their surveys? So I’m very excited because I think that will help researchers use this question more easily and answer many of the research questions that we’ve been talking about so far today.

Alex Murphy (50m 25s):
Yeah. I’m excited about that too. And I’m also excited about it. I think there’s just, I think with this new metric, there’s a range of certain protocol questions that we can be looking at. So one is just tracking, you know, if we were to have this sort form, the food insecurity and X has three different forms, two different kinds of short worms, you know, when we get to this short form, it would be wonderful. You know, if people were to adopt, it’d be great. If we could trace insecurity over time and look at like, you know, how is insecurity changing across time, across interventions, you know, across different populations, different geographies. And so just to have a better sense of what what’s going on on the ground, I think there’s also just a bunch of, you know, research questions that I think would be really interesting to dive into.

Alex Murphy (51m 5s):
So when we discussed is, is what is it about certain geographies that shape insecurity? Because I think that will help us think about like, you know, is it, we just need better lighting in urban areas and then people will take up public transit more, you know, that’s different than saying there’s no transit at all. You know, one question that I have that we don’t have the data yet for, but I think one question I’m really interested in thinking about is what is it? You know, there’s a lot of work in sociology about how the disadvantage of people’s parents impacts children, right? So if you’re, if your parent is incarcerated, if your parent doesn’t have a job, if your parent doesn’t have a high school degree, here’s impact on children, then I’m very curious about what that might look like for people who are transportation insecure. You can imagine if your parents can’t get around, what does that mean for you as a child and your later outcomes, right?

Alex Murphy (51m 50s):
If you can’t be enrolled in certain school programs, if you spend a lot of time at home and in the neighborhood, you know, like, is that a mechanism of inequality that shapes future life outcomes for people? I think there’s a lot of questions I’m interested in, a lot of questions about, you know, where are the areas that I’m interested in is how place matters for people and outcomes. And I think thinking about like, you know, if you are living in a neighborhood that has high rates of transportation and security, how might that shape your outcomes differently than if you’re living in a neighborhood where people have good mobility and are getting around and, you know, maybe not spending a lot of time in the neighborhood or how, how much displays matter when you are mobile versus if you’re not right, like that kind of variation of how, how questions about place mattering intersects with both insecurity at the neighborhood level and individual level.

Alex Murphy (52m 33s):
So Alex and I have sort of like a long list of questions people could be asking. And I, we hope that this work will sort of get people looking at transportation insecurity more and sort of generating a whole new research gender around.

Jeff Wood (52m 45s):
I think I’ve certainly after, you know, reading pieces from you all. I think it’s changed my mind a little bit. So I appreciate that. Where can folks find it if they want to get a copy of, of your research or any of your other work that you might have coming out soon?

Alex Murphy (52m 57s):
So we have two papers that are currently out there, both an open access journal and the journal of survey practice. They can Google a very technical and boring sounding title. One, I think is called creating a preliminary transportation security index, and then something about a factor analysis. And then the second one is called validating, the 16 items, transportation insecurity, and again, factor analysis is that the title? So those are the two that are out there. We have two papers that are under review, and if people want to email us, we’re happy to share them with people. Eventually once we have a larger body of work, we’re hoping to launch a website so people can have all the information in one place. And it hopefully also be able to highlight the ways people are using the index.

Alex Murphy (53m 39s):
One of the things that I think has made this work so rewarding for us is that we’ve gotten, you know, a lot of feedback from people who are like, we have been waiting, we have been wanting a tool like this, you know, reached out and say like, we’ve been wanting a tool like this. You know, city governments, planners, I’ve really been interested in both sort of to have a descriptive understanding of transportation insecurity in our cities and their regions, but also as a tool to evaluate different kinds of interventions that they’re thinking about. So all this to say is hopefully in the next year or two, we’ll be having all of that in one place. So people can find it easily.

Alix Gould-Werth (54m 14s):
Also plug we have, if you want something that’s like a little easier to read and a little less technical. We have a blog post at the Washington center for Equitable Growth called the transportation security index can help the United States plan for a more equitable transportation future. And it, we kind of summarize what the index is, but we also describe our response to DOTC requests for information on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities through the federal government. And that links to our response and also has all of the 16 items in one neat place to look at. And then also feel free to reach out to us. And we’re happy to provide information about how to implement it and how to score it and where we are with the cup points.

Jeff Wood (54m 56s):
If folks would just send me an email, The Overhead Wire, gmail.com I’ll forward. Any questions to you, it’s probably the best way to go forward. And also I’ll put the two papers in the show notes. So folks want to go into the show notes, there’ll be other links, so they won’t have to Google the fun long titles. It’s much easier to click a link. I think. Well, Alex and Alex, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

Alix Gould-Werth (55m 17s):
It’s a real treat to get to talk with you.

Alex Murphy (55m 19s):
This is lovely. Thank you, Jeff.


Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast

Testimonials

…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory


I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute


Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs

Subscribe

To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Top Links

of the past 48 hours

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free