Posted by Nicole Wright, Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse Staff
Reliable transportation has long been considered an integral part of achieving economic self-sufficiency. The advent of urban sprawl and the movement of high-demand jobs and growing job sectors into suburban areas has made access to affordable public and private transportation a critical element of finding, attaining, and retaining jobs. Affordability and access issues across transportation types, both public and private (car ownership), have been associated with financial and commuting time burdens that are prohibitive for very low-income families, including paying for gas, insurance, and car maintenance and/or long public transit waits, cumbersome and time-consuming transfers, and infrequent service during off-peak hours. Research has shown that upward mobility is in fact higher in cities with “less sprawl, as measured by commute times to work.” Conversely, “areas with greater economic and racial segregation, which might make job searches and commuting more difficult for residents of poor regions” tend to have lower income mobility. For this reason, research, practice, and policy in this field have largely centered on helping families overcome these barriers.
One of the key trends in transportation research is the study of spatial mismatch and how to overcome it. Although the spatial mismatch hypothesis was first proposed in the late 1960s, it continues to be relevant to policy and practice today. It originally posited that “serious limitations on black residential choice, combined with the steady dispersal of jobs from central cities, are responsible for the low rates of employment and low earnings of African-American workers.” In the context of transportation, this means that the geographic distance between low-income households and where employment opportunities are available must be bridged by affordable transportation options for individuals to have a means of retaining steady employment. This is especially true in light of a 2012 study that found that the “suburbanization of jobs” prevents transit from connecting workers to opportunity in local labor pools. The study ultimately found that the “typical job” is accessible to only 27 percent of a metropolitan workforce in 90 minutes or less via transit.
Efforts to mitigate spatial mismatch through policy and practice have led to a debate between public and private transit solutions. Many studies have framed this discussion as one of public transportation access programs versus car ownership programs. Multiple studies have suggested car ownership as the more effective option. This is likely, in part, due to the increasing need for individuals living in urban centers to make a “reverse commute.” The reverse commute, defined as the commute from inner city residential locations to employment opportunities found in the suburbs, often requires private transportation due to a lack of public transportation in suburban areas. However, not all research has shown benefits to car ownership programs. A 2015 study found that although improving automobile access is associated with a decreased probability of future unemployment and greater income gains, the costs of owning and maintaining a car may be greater than the associated gains in income.
Despite the difficulty many people have accessing and affording reliable transportation, one 2014 study, Getting around when you’re just getting by: Transportation survival strategies of the poor, reveals certain “survival strategies” used by low-income families to manage the expense. The authors found that most low-income households are concerned about transportation expenditure, and as a result, carefully evaluate the cost of travel against the benefits of each possible mode of transportation. These strategies include: modifications to travel behavior, cost-covering strategies, careful management of household expenditures, and reductions in discretionary spending. This study concluded that many of these strategies create additional hardship for low-income families. The findings serve to highlight the importance of helping families access transportation that not only bridges the gap to needed services and employment opportunities, but also fits the unique situation of each family. Other studies such as this one have repeatedly shown how crucial transportation access is to self-sufficiency. It is an issue that continues to grow in importance and a barrier that must be broken to create paths out of poverty for families across the country.
Learn More About Transportation From the SSRC- The Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse library contains numerous articles, reports, and stakeholder resources on transportation and its links to self-sufficiency, including:
- SSRC Selections: Transportation and self-sufficiency: SSRC Selections highlight research, evaluation reports, and other publications that inform the field about key issues in, and effective practices for, fostering economic self-sufficiency. This set of selections is focused on resources related to the impact of transportation on self-sufficiency.
- What if cities combined car-based solutions with transit to improve access to opportunity?: The authors argue for combining affordable car ownership, ride sharing, and expanded transit access to improve opportunity prospects for low-income individuals.
- A longitudinal analysis of cars, transit, and employment outcomes: This study found a strong positive correlation between car ownership and income gains. However, the authors found no such relationship between access to public transportation and future earnings. They also suggested that the costs of owning and maintaining a car may outweigh any gains in income.
- Getting around when you're just getting by: Transportation survival strategies of the poor: For this study, the authors interviewed 73 low-income individuals about how they managed their mobility needs in light of burdensome transportation expenditures.
- Where the jobs are: Employer access to labor by transit: In this report, the author mapped 371 transit providers in 100 metropolitan areas. He found that jobs are increasingly suburbanized to the point that only 27 percent of jobs are accessible to the metropolitan workforce in 90 minutes or less. This finding highlights the need for greater investment in transit, particularly in disconnected (and largely low-income) neighborhoods.
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