Public transit is key to the nation’s economic recovery, but right now there is a mismatch between transit availability and access to jobs. In a new study, the Brookings Institution found that while 70 percent of Americans—and nearly 90 percent of lower-income Americans—have access to public transit, most cannot use it to get to their jobs. That is a mismatch that needs to be fixed, says Robert Puentes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Some 70 percent of metropolitan-area workers cannot reach their jobs within a 90-minute transit commute, Puentes notes, contributing to the fact that three out of four working Americans commute by car. Furthermore, while most low-income neighborhoods have access to transit, jobs are increasingly located in the suburbs; more than half of jobs in the nation’s largest metro areas jobs are located more than ten miles from their central business districts. In spite of this, the percentage of Americans who commute to work using public transit grew during the 2000s for the first time in decades.

To produce its latest report, Missed Opportunity: Jobs and Transit in Metropolitan America, Brookings studied more than a billion transit trips and amassed over 500 gigabytes of data. “It was an exercise [in] academic masochism,” remarks Bruce Katz, vice president and director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. With skyrocketing gas prices and changing demographics, he points out, America could be entering “a transit moment.”

“We need a new transit game plan,” Katz says. “We need to have a total transport approach that links transit to job access, with both public and private investment not only in fixed-route systems but also in flexible low-cost options like car sharing.”

U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan agrees with Katz, saying that the United States is not only in a transit moment, but also in a “metro moment.” “The old dynamic between cities and suburbs has reversed,” he says. “In the past, people followed capital; now, capital follows people. Metropolitan areas produce 90 cents of every dollar of GDP in the U.S. So, if we are to win the future, as President Obama says we should, we can only do so with strong metro [areas].

“Ironically, the housing crisis has focused the market in this direction,” Donovan goes on. “The places hardest hit by the housing crisis are the ones least connected to transit. So now we see that there is an economic rationale for connecting housing—as well as jobs—to transit.”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood points out that the recent economic stimulus program has made huge investments in all types of transit, including streetcars, light rail, and high-speed intercity rail. At the same time, he notes, millions of Americans will continue to rely on buses. “Buses are the Rodney Dangerfield of the transit world: they get no respect,” he says. “The only people who don’t like buses are those stuck in cars behind them. We will always have bus transportation because it is efficient and affordable.”

The public and private sectors must work together to find creative financing solutions to the transit mismatch, says Donovan, citing projects that have been self-funded through private development along new transit lines. “The cost of putting housing and jobs in the wrong place is huge,” he says. “We can’t afford not to do this right.”

The study found major geographic differences in transit access among the metropolitan areas studied. Fifteen of the 20 metro areas ranking highest on a combined score of transit coverage and job access are in the West. The top performers include New York, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., as well as Salt Lake City, Tucson, Fresno, and Las Vegas. At the same time, 15 of the 20 lowest-ranking cities are in the South. This discrepancy is due in part, explains Puentes, by topographic barriers in western metro areas—mountains, deserts, and coastlines—that constrain suburban development.

But public funding also plays a big part in distinguishing cities’ transit access. “As states and regions strive to put Americans back to work, policy makers should be careful not to sever the transportation lifelines between workers and jobs,” the report concludes.