This Initiative Is Mapping Public Transit Access to Community Colleges. Here’s Why.

The Civic Mapping Initiative is producing state-by-state maps of community colleges' accessibility by public transit.
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  • The recently launched Civic Mapping Initiative is making state-by-state maps of community colleges' accessibility by public transit.
  • The initiative was launched by the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, which found in a previous nationwide analysis that only 57% of primary community college campuses were accessible by public transit.
  • Many community colleges are located within just a few miles of a public transit stop, potentially making for an easy and low-cost expansion of services.

For many traditionally underserved students, community colleges are vital points of access to higher education. But many community colleges aren't accessible by public transportation, potentially limiting accessibility and hampering students' ability to get degrees.

The Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation made waves when it first released an analysis of public transit access at community colleges in 2021. That analysis, which focused only on primary campuses, found that only 57% of those campuses were accessible by public transit.

That analysis sparked a national conversation — and prompted the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation to look deeper at transit access around community colleges. The foundation launched the Civic Mapping Initiative last year to do state-by-state analyses of public transit accessibility at all community college campuses.

Abigail Seldin, co-founder of the Civic Mapping Initiative and CEO of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, hopes the in-depth analyses of public transit access will draw attention to a problem with a relatively straightforward solution.

"What we saw in our initial sample is that 25% of primary community college campuses are less than 5 miles from an existent transit stop, but beyond walking distance," Seldin said. "In higher education, we talk a lot about last-mile funding. It doesn't really get more literal than extending a bus line."

While the pandemic accelerated online education, Seldin said the pandemic also highlighted that high-speed internet isn't yet available to all students. Training for hands-on professions, like welding or nursing, require some level of in-person instruction, Seldin said.

As lawmakers and business leaders increasingly look to community colleges to close the skills gap in those and other high-demand professions, Seldin said providing public transit access will be "critical" to meeting workforce goals.

"We cannot assume that all current and potential employees and potential college students have vehicle access," Seldin said. "If we want folks to be able to get to work, get to school, there needs to be a way to get there. There needs to be transit access."

The Civic Mapping Initiative has so far produced state-level maps for California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The initiative also created a regional map of New England.

In its Pennsylvania analysis, for example, the Civic Mapping Initiative found that 65% of community and technical colleges had a transit stop within walking distance. Another 22% of the state's community and technical college campuses were less than 5 miles from an existing transit line.

Check Out the Map Here

Seldin cautioned that the Civic Mapping Intiaitive's analyses are meant to be tools for public policy rather than ways for students to assess colleges' transit accessibility. The maps also use data based on distances as the crow flies rather than Google Maps' walking routes because in rural areas those directions can result in "inadvisable" walking paths that aren't necessarily safe, Seldin said.

Using straight-line distances means that there is a slight downward bias in some cases, Seldin said, meaning that the actual walking distance could be a bit farther than estimated.

"Our map is really just a point of departure for a broader conversation about transit burden and transit access," Seldin said. "We cannot show, currently, the cost of using local transit routes or schedules, all of which are essential to a comprehensive picture of transit accessibility."

Federal lawmakers have shown interest in increasing transit access at community colleges in recent years. After the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation's initial report two years ago, an ultimately unsuccessful bill was introduced in late 2021 that would've allowed the Department of Transportation to award grants to bus and rail operators to expand their service to higher education institutions.

That bill targeted institutions that served historically underserved populations, including community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, and tribal colleges and universities, BestColleges previously reported.

While that legislation didn't make it across the finish line, other federal grants to increase transit access are moving forward. The Los Angeles Community College District last September received a $1 million federal grant to cut back on commuting costs for students, BestColleges previously reported.

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