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What’s the Answer to a 107-minute commute?

On the front page of the Washington Post today was an article about a young, single mother living in the Atlanta region and her hunt for a job. From her temporary home in a shelter, she travels by public transit to job services and interviews. Read this description of her journey to one job interview:

  • Walk to bus stop near the shelter
  • Ride the bus 69 stops from a southern suburb of Atlanta into downtown subway station
  • Take the subway 9 stops to a transfer point west of town
  • Ride another bus ride 49 stops to a western suburb of Altanta to the closest bus stop near her destination
  • Walk .25 mile along a busy road to her job interview in an industrial park

The total time for this journey? 1 hour, 47 minutes. The time to travel by car? 27 minutes, a direct suburb-to-suburb route.

And imagine doing that not once a week but 20 times a week, to comply with the job search requirement set up by the public assistance program. And this young woman did that, for two weeks, but then was denied welfare for “refusing to cooperate with the application process.” Go figure. I ask myself, would I be willing to make the same burdensome commute for a job? 20 times in one week?

As the Post article points out, as more sections of our cities are redeveloped to attract employed urbanites, the supply of affordable housing in those cities is shrinking, pushing those who earn low wages into the outer rings of our cities. That’s where land use planning and transit services rarely sit at the same table together. The result for those commuting from one suburb to another is the kind of onerous trip described above.

We transit advocates encourage job services agencies, public assistance offices, and others to give people a bus pass, teach them how to use the public transit service. We know that transit services are not optimal in the suburbs, but they do their best to criss-cross this amalgam of dispersed neighborhoods. In the end, though, this model of determining the most efficient routing for a transit service based on predicted ridership is going to fail someone, or multiple someones.

For transit to be successful, we need a model of public service that emulates a car trip as close as possible, and we have indeed seen this emerge in the past 5 years with

. . . Transportation network companies (TNC), such as Uber and Lyft, that provide direct origin-to-destination trips, mostly one-on-one,
. . . Private transit-like companies, such as Bridj and Split, use algorithms to group trips on a single vehicle in real time, but always in dense urban cores

Neither of these options would help the young mother in our story. She clearly couldn’t afford the TNC option, nor is her travel within an urban area that might be served by one of the private buses. One option might be ridesharing, if she could somehow connect with an individual making a commute similar to her intended journey. Imagine a massive regional database that all SOV drivers logged into at the beginning of their trip to receive an instant match of others trying to make the same commute. This is a simplistic description of what the app developed by Carma does, but again it works mostly in urban areas.

If I were clever enough to create a suburb-to-suburb transportation network that could serve this young woman, I’d probably be receiving some of that venture capital now flowing into the TNCs and private transit services. But I can only pose the question: so it’s up to you to picture what this solution would look like.

1 hour, 47 minute commute—one way. I’d hire someone with that level of perseverance. Wouldn’t you?

Post-script: Here's another example of a woman walking 4.8 miles to her job or taking 2-hour transit trip.

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Amy Conrick

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This post was written by on December 29, 2015 10:17 am

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