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Needed: More, Better, AND Accessible Jobs

This recent Per Square Mile post caught my eye (hat tip to my colleague Ben Orr) because it hits on three key issues that affect access to opportunity in our major metro areas: where the poor live, where jobs are, and how transit fits into the picture. And all of these issues came to the fore in our recent study on transit and employment access.

In a tidy summary of work done by Ed Glaeser and his colleagues a few years back, Tim De Chant writes, “Cities across the United States are filled with pockets of hardship, and while rural poverty is widespread, too, impoverishment within metropolitan areas tends to be strikingly concentrated near downtown.” 

Well … sort of. Yes, concentrated poverty tilts more toward central cities, but that doesn’t mean most poor people live in cities, or even in rural areas. In fact, over the last decade the pace of growth in the suburban poor population was so steep that the metropolitan poor population tipped from majority urban to majority suburban. By 2009 suburbs in the nation’s largest metro areas were home to 1.6 million more poor residents than their central cities and more than a third of the nation’s poor. 

At the same time, jobs in almost every major metro area also decentralized. Almost 63 percent of metropolitan employment is in suburbs, and over two-thirds of low-skill jobs are located there. So that’s an upside for the suburban poor, right?

Not exactly. Poor people and jobs may be decentralizing, but low-income suburbanites are less likely to end up in living near jobs than their higher-income counterparts. How, then, do poor city residents reach an increasingly suburban jobs base, and how do poor suburban residents find their way to other suburbs to tap into growing job centers?

This is where transit comes in (or perhaps doesn’t, as the case may be). Across the 100 largest metro areas, we found that if you live in a city, not surprisingly, you’re more likely to have access to a transit stop--be it bus, train, streetcar, ferry, funicular, what have you--than working-age suburbanites. You’re also able to reach almost twice as many metro area jobs in 90 minutes than suburban commuters on average (41 percent versus 22 percent). And if you happen to live in a low-income neighborhood, those jobs shares even inch up a bit (43 percent versus 25 percent).

But what kinds of jobs are we talking about? While low-skill jobs--like retail, hospitality, and construction--lean heavily toward the suburbs, high-skill jobs---like finance and legal services--tend to be more centralized. Since transit is generally strongest in cities, high-skill jobs end up being more accessible via transit than middle- or low-skill jobs. That means we end up with a mismatch. High-income residents are less likely to have access to transit, but more likely to reach high-skill jobs when they do get on a bus or train. On the other hand, low-income residents are more likely to be able to jump on a bus, but it’s less likely to take them to jobs they qualify for.

This is especially concerning for that growing pool of low-income suburbanites, though more so in some regions than others. For instance, the majority of the poor in both Salt Lake City and Atlanta live in suburbs (73 and 84 percent, respectively). In Salt Lake City, however, 87 percent of all working-age suburbanites have access to transit and can reach over half the region’s low- and middle-skill jobs in 90 minutes. In Atlanta, on the other hand, less than a third of suburban commuters have access to transit, and for those that do, they can reach less than 15 percent of low- and middle-skill jobs in an hour and a half. 

De Chant notes, “Transit gives the poor greater access to employment, which will hopefully make them not poor in the future.”   If the best anti-poverty program is a job, how do we make sure residents have access to employment opportunities, especially if they can’t afford (or choose not) to own a car? Transit agencies can do their part by making access to employment an explicit part of their planning and evaluation process. But transit agencies can’t do it alone. Effectively connecting people to jobs will also mean linking up decisions about things like land use and economic development policies that discourage jobs sprawl, affordable housing policies, and yes, transportation planning and investments. If we want our metropolitan economies (and the people who make them run) to get back on their feet after years of sluggish growth and recession, then the conversation can’t stop at more jobs or even better jobs … it’s also got to be about accessible jobs.