From Policy & Progress, Fall 2012
By Tazra Mitchell
Historically, North Carolina has favored road and highway investments over public transit. Only 3 percent of the state transportation budget goes to public transit.
But there is an increasing need for public transit to connect workers to job opportunities. The lack of public transit limits the ability of workers—especially those living outside of cities—to find and keep jobs.
Research by the UNC School of Social Work shows that a lack of transportation is one of the most common barriers to obtaining and maintaining employment. Commuting from home to job interviews, work, or work-related activities and back again is a challenge for many North Carolinians.
For some, owning a car is cost-prohibitive. Expenses related to car ownership—the cost of a vehicle, insurance premiums, maintenance and operating expenses—account for the second largest share of expenditures for the typical household. Public transit provides a more affordable option to jobless and lower-income individuals.
North Carolinians traveling to work by means of public transportation are disproportionately people with lower incomes, according to the latest Census Bureau data. In 2011, 67 percent of public-transit riders had incomes of $25,000 or less, up 11 percent from 2010. And public-transit users were more likely to work in educational services, health care, and social assistance jobs—occupations that heavily contribute to local communities’ well-being.
Home to Work and Back Again
Public transit is only helpful to low-income workers if it connects where they live to where the jobs are available. This means transportation and affordable housing plans need to be coordinated.
Affordable housing is less available in urban areas than in rural areas. But, according to the Center on Labor Technology, any housing-related savings from living far from urban centers are often erased by higher transportation expenses due to longer commutes.
This makes public transit important for people living outside of urban centers. Unfortunately, turning to public transit is simply not an option for many non-urban residents.
Public transit is scarce in rural areas, sometimes available only on a first-serve basis with certain eligibility restrictions. Fixed-route services often bypass all or a significant portion of areas outside of urban centers, leaving many transit-dependent residents without a reliable method of getting to work.
This is particularly problematic because, increasingly, rural North Carolinians must look to the metropolitan region to access jobs. Ninety-eight percent of the state’s job growth during the official economic recovery has been in metropolitan areas. Rural areas lost jobs during this time period, compounding the geographic disadvantage faced by rural residents and reinforcing the need for stronger and more flexible public transit services.
Even public-transit services in urban areas provide only limited access to jobs: the Brookings Institution found the typical metropolitan resident in the state can only reach 30 percent of jobs via transit within 90 minutes. And service hours do not always match up well with the needs of low-wage workers who are more likely to have night and weekend jobs.
Targeted Expansion of Public Transit
Due to budgetary constraints and individual preferences, it is not feasible or necessary for public transit to be available in every neighborhood or within reach of every job. Indeed, the optimal level of public transit varies from community to community based on need and efficiency.
And while public transit is not the only response to increasing job accessibility, addressing the existing public transit coverage gaps in neighborhoods where jobs and opportunity are lacking is vital to supporting workers and the recovery.
Investing in expanded public-transit options—by sending buses into underserved areas or upping evening and weekend services, for example—is one way to remove transportation barriers and support the extension of opportunity to disadvantaged communities.
But in order to truly improve the chances of successful employment outcomes, policymakers must work across multiple policy silos—like housing, transit, and jobs—to enable social and economic inclusion, accessibility, and mobility across the state.