The Long Commute to Upward Mobility - Metropolitan Planning Council

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The Long Commute to Upward Mobility

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Tasha Shaw* starts her mornings early – very early – so that she has time to make a one-and-a-half hour, two bus commute from her home in North Lawndale to Lane Tech High School where she is a sophomore. Like many students in the Chicago Public School system, Tasha had to make the choice to attend one of her neighborhood schools or endure a long commute to attend a selective enrollment school that might improve her future college opportunities. For Tasha, it's a choice driven by opportunity, and reliable public transit is her literal access to both a quality education and a brighter future.

Tasha’s experiences aren’t unique. In part, they are symptomatic of the persistent segregation that exists in Chicago’s public schools. (For more on that, check out our earlier post exploring the relationship between segregation and education). But for students like Tasha, and hundreds of thousands of other students and workers in Chicago’s South and West side communities, disproportionately long commutes are a huge challenge.

As part of MPC’s Cost of Segregation project, MPC is exploring the relationship between segregation and transportation. Our end goal is to provide recommendations for ways that transportation policies and targeted investments can improve access to opportunity, increase mobility across the region, reduce the negative effects of racial and economic segregation in the short-term, and move us toward a more integrated region in the future.

As a first step, MPC analyzed the relationship between average commute time, race and household income across the region. It turns out that areas with the longest average commute times in the City of Chicago also happen to be predominantly low-income communities of color.

This finding is supported by the research of Virginia Parks, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. According to Parks, African Americans spend more time than any other group getting to work, and in some cases spend about 15 minutes more a day than whites commuting. She connects this phenomenon to issues of racial segregation and intergenerational economic mobility. In Chicago, “African Americans continue to experience pronounced spatial disadvantage as a result of historic racial residential segregation and a jobs-housing mismatch.”  

So why does this all matter? Well, there are a number of reasons.

The Housing-Transportation Trade-off

Where one lives and works can have a significant impact on transportation choices. Many households opt for less expensive housing options farther from transit or job centers. The tradeoff is that they often spend more time and money commuting across the region or are more dependent on driving, which can be cost-prohibitive for a low-income household.

Transportation is often the second largest expense for households after housing. For low-income households existing on the margin, transportation costs can make a big dent in household costs. According to the Federal Highway Administration, households in auto-dependent locations can typically spend 25 percent of their income on transportation costs (i.e. gas, car repairs, insurance, etc.) Housing  located closer to employment and other amenities can reduce household transportation costs to as little as nine percent of household income. This translates to having more disposable income to spend on housing, entertainment and education.

Unfortunately, the Chicago region’s hub and spoke transit system leaves many areas on the edges of the city without access to transit. According to the Center for Neighborhood Technology, approximately 10 percent of Cook County residents live in “transit deserts”, meaning they are more than a half-mile from a rail transit stop and a quarter-mile from high-quality bus service. Nearly a half-million people are left with restricted mobility and limited access to all of the region’s jobs and amenities.

What if we were able to ensure that all communities—especially areas of concentrated poverty—were able to have access to affordable, reliable transportation options that took them from their home to where they needed to go?

Accessing Employment Opportunity

Even if a community has access to transit, their job opportunities may still be out of reach.

While jobs in the Loop are easily reached with the existing transit system, four out of the five largest employment centers in the region are actually located in the suburbs. In the seven-county Chicago region, there are far more jobs located outside the city – and the region’s transit system offers very few options for suburban residents to reach suburban job sites. For residents living and working in the suburbs, suburban to suburban commutes often mean a greater dependency on auto-commuting to make the long trek across the region.

The suburbanization of employment over the last several decades means jobs are also located farther from lower income city residents that must now make a “reverse commute” to the suburbs. The Chicago Reader did a great job of highlighting how the reverse commute to suburban job centers can be incredibly strenuous for many Chicago residents. In the article, one Roseland resident who drives 40 miles to a manufacturing job in Romeoville noted, “I’m one car breakdown from not having a job myself.” The reality is that the economic stability of many residents in Chicago’s most segregated communities is made even more fragile if they lack quality, reliable transportation.

As suburban parts of the region have grown in both population and job development, the transit system has not changed significantly to accommodate that growth. The region needs to address this major challenge through transit and transportation investments as well as driving new business and job growth to accessible areas.

“I’m one car breakdown from not having a job myself.”

Commute Time and Job Retention

A longer travel time can also have an impact on one’s quality of life, ability to make extra-curricular trips, time with family, or ability to get to work on time.

While employees pay a price when they don’t have access to both affordable housing and reliable transportation, business owners pay a price too. David Brown*, owner of a catering service in the north suburbs, once employed three individuals who commuted over an hour each way from Kane County to Lake County. After a year and a half, the employees found other work closer to where they lived, and the catering business lost these good employees because of their long commute.

Brown’s story points to the important fact that a whole business can suffer when a train schedule goes awry, or a tire goes flat. Brown believes that “it’s a more productive business environment when there are public tax dollars spent to provide infrastructure that makes it easier for employees to live near their work.”

His experiences are supported by evidence, which shows that long commute times not only increase new-hire tardiness and absenteeism rates, but also have a major negative impact on retention of employees. It also leads to a slew of other issues for businesses.

To be clear, enabling faster long-distance commutes should not be the ultimate goal. Making commutes faster without addressing the housing-jobs mismatch is not the solution. But transportation is the underlying factor that determines “access” to housing, jobs, health, safe neighborhoods, and economic opportunity. MPC is examining the relationship between segregation and transportation for that very reason.

To be clear, enabling shorter commutes should not be the ultimate goal.

In Phase II of The Cost of Segregation, we’ll be exploring strategies that both develop and implement context specific solutions for communities that disproportionately suffer from long commutes or lack of access to transit, as well as strategies that benefit mobility across the region as a whole. Are there expanded or new transit options or services that could better connect low-income residents and neighborhoods to employment and other frequent destinations? How could increases in mobility positively impact Chicagoland’s businesses, workforce development, regional competitiveness and economy?

*names have been changed to protect identities.

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