Understanding the transportation experience of disadvantaged workers - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Understanding the transportation experience of disadvantaged workers

Audrey Wennink

Boarding the CTA Red Line at 63rd Street

The current geography of opportunity requires that many disadvantaged job seekers travel far outside of their communities to access quality jobs, therefore absorbing high transportation costs–both in terms of finances and time. Many quality suburban job sites are completely inaccessible for those without a car because there are no nearby transit routes or the schedules do not align with work shifts.

Unfortunately, long and expensive commutes are a common experience for many Chicago residents. That’s why MPC’s Cost of Segregation and Our Equitable Future initiatives identified a need for broad research on transportation requirements, perceptions and preferences in communities of color. Such research is needed because while quantitative studies have demonstrated important commute disparities by income and race, less is known about how social contexts, transportation systems, and employment dynamics interact to produce transportation barriers to employment for disadvantaged job seekers.

What role does transportation play in accessing and maintaining employment? Over the past year, Equiticity, MPC and the University of Illinois collaborated on focus group research with job seekers and job coaches at American Job Center locations to explore this question. The resulting research provides insights into the many employment-related transportation challenges faced by those living on the South and West Sides, how they experience these burdens and what adaptations they have had to make to obtain employment. The research highlighted both familiar and lesser-known issues. The salient aspect of this research was understanding the human context and difficult choices people must make when trying to obtain a job.

Respondents who rely on transit described the poor customer experience caused by the condition of buses and trains, reliability problems, limited frequency, and broken elevators, and also highlighted many issues negatively influencing the total transit trip experience that are outside of transit agencies’ control. Crime and violence were prominent themes, as respondents reported personal security concerns, particularly related to using transit, biking and walking. Respondents also identified the transportation inequities between North side communities and South and West side communities, from transit service reliability to bicycle infrastructure. 

A second white paper summarizing research on the experience of getting around in communities of color conducted via a separate set of focus groups is under development and will be published in the summer.  Please save the date for a virtual panel discussion on this research on July 16 from 12 to 1:30 p.m.

Transportation equity performance measures

A companion element to the above qualitative research by Equiticity, the University of Illinois, and MPC was an investigation into methods used to prioritize equity in making transportation investment decisions. We asked the questions: how do metro regions prioritize transportation investments, and do they use equity as a factor?  The research was conducted by MPC research assistant Agustina Krapp, under the guidance of MPC’s transportation team and her master’s program professors at the University of Illinois – Champaign-Urbana.  For her work, the University of Illinois–Champaign Urbana’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning selected Agustina as the 2020 recipient of the Outstanding Capstone Award for a Project.

How do we decide which transportation projects we fund? Is equity used as a factor? The research examines the use of equity-based criteria in the transportation investment prioritization processes of the metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that serve the 40 largest urbanized areas in the U.S. The research found almost half of the agencies consider equity as a criterion for allocating transportation funds. The study categorized each equity-based project evaluation criterion as one of five different types, with varying degrees of complexity and potential for impact, and assessed their strengths and weaknesses.

The approach taken was to evaluate how the performance measures aligned with a working definition of transportation equity. The research found two important shortcomings at the general level: first, that equity measures currently in use do not consider all the relevant aspects of the transportation equity definition; second, that their weights applied to decision making are not high enough to significantly influence investment decisions. Based on this analysis, the report developed a range of recommendations to further improve the consideration of equity in project selection methodologies, aimed to be implemented not only by MPOs but by any entity with the responsibility of programming transportation dollars such as state, county and city departments of transportation. 

Read about the role of transportation in accessing opportunity

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For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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