Economic opportunity may just be a subway ride away

Long commutes show structural inequality in cities, and bad health outcomes

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During President Biden’s State of the Union address, he spoke a lot about rebuilding our highways and railroads to improve the infrastructure of America. But if we don’t address the inequalities in the ways we use those roads and trains, and which communities are most in need of support, we risk embedding structural challenges in the very fabric of our cities.

Research from Raj Chetty at Harvard on 5 different social factors found that shorter commute times were found to be the strongest predictor of upward mobility. In fact, investments in public transportation have been shown to reduce local inequality and drive down local crime.New York City has the longest commute times in America

Residents of the Bronx in NYC have a 43.5 minute average commute, the longest in America. How can we learn from a city with one of the oldest and most crowded public transit systems in America to ensure that Americans don’t face barriers to employment?

New York City has some of the worst commute times because it fails to invest in systemic upgrades across the board. Surging numbers of commuters have not been met with a proper increase in transit supply, and ancient infrastructure like the C-train, which breaks down 10x more often than the average newer train, causes delays in the subway system.

Healthcare workers, despite being essential, have some of the worst commutes

However, healthcare workers and others in similar professions often don’t have the ability to work remotely. In fact, Healthcare workers in New York have the worst commute times of any profession at 52 minutes on average.

Delrisa Sewell-Henry, a healthcare worker from Queens in NYC, waits for her daily bus as part of her 2+ hour commute — Source: NYTimes

Delrisa Sewell-Henry is one of NYC’s more than 500,000 healthcare workers who has an astronomically long commute. Every day she commutes more than 2 hours, taking 1 bus and 3 subways, to help take care of a disabled man in Queens. Delrisa makes $13/hr, which is particularly challenging when her commute gets longer. One day when her subway got delayed, it took her 3 hours to get home so she had to pay a neighbor $35/hr to pick up her daughter and watch her that night. The math doesn’t check out.

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Pre-and-Post Pandemic Commutes

Before the pandemic, commute times were rising dramatically. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of people who had 90+ minute commutes to work rose by 45%. This is a product of several factors — migration to cities that become quickly congested, lower-income residents having to live in further-out and more-affordable neighborhoods, and urban metro dynamics.

The push towards remote work has greatly helped reduce barriers to employment, like long commutes. Houses near higher job density tend to be more expensive, and so lower-income workers end up having to live further away from city centers while commuting long distances to work.

Longer commutes lead to worse health, exacerbating inequalities

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Longer commute times are also associated with negative health impacts and lower life expectancies. This is likely because longer commute times are associated with negative health impacts like higher cholesterol, higher blood sugar, higher depression, higher anxiety and depression, and worse cardiovascular fitness. Interestingly, the relationship is much weaker in urban areas.

Some studies have also found that longer commute times that result in extreme traffic can increase nighttime domestic violence by 9%.

Minority communities bear the worst burden of transportation inequality

Black and Latinx families own far fewer cars than White families, which can exacerbate inequalities in communities around transportation. For every 100 cars that White families own, Black families own 73 cars. While car ownership poses environmental challenges, it also affords independence and economic freedom that may otherwise be out of reach.

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For low-income Americans, car costs like insurance, gasoline, and car payments can eat up nearly 25% of their income.

Furthermore, the lack of access to reliable and affordable transportation can also contribute to social isolation and reduced opportunities for social and economic mobility. For example, people living in low-income neighborhoods with inadequate public transit may struggle to find and maintain employment, leading to a cycle of poverty and limited opportunities for advancement.

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The Path Forward

Congestion is one of the primary reasons why commute times can surge in cities. However, some programs like congestion pricing can disproportionately impact low-income communities who would have to pay a higher proportion of their income on tolls. We suggest 3 possible solutions to help address the ways that city planners and policymakers can improve transportation in America without worsening inequalities.

  • Expand public transportation infrastructure — While adding buses and trains to existing routes will help cut down on transportation times, cities need to expand their bus and rail networks to communities that are becoming increasingly deattached from urban economic centers. As rising home prices have pushed low-income communities further from commercial centers, public transportation infrastructure has not kept pace. Case in point: Section 21202 of The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $7.5B in funding to support this type of work and playbooks from Oakland show how effective these investments can be in reducing inequality.
  • Employer incentivized commuting benefits — If you are an employer, there are a range of incentives that you can use to promote commute equity for your staff. If you offer free parking, consider offering benefits to those who bike or take public transit. If you subsidize transit costs, consider providing similar benefits to employees who carpool from areas where transit may not be otherwise accessible. Make sure that your employees can get to work in fair and cost-effective ways. Case in point: BCG’s Transit Access Report with the Metropolitan Planning Council looked at several companies in Chicago including Caterpillar and McDonald’s and cited the ways that companies help their workers. For example, employers can subsidize ride sharing and offer funds to the school transportation systems to create additional pickup and dropoff spots for employees too. For many companies, standing up an employee transit program is less expensive than employee turnover.
Source: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for proposed rule Section 3A of MGL c. 40A
  • Put homes and jobs near transit hubs — Putting more trains on rail lines or buses on streets doesn’t help if those modes of transportation aren’t connecting people to employment. Tax breaks that incentivize employers to move near transit hubs and new zoning laws that encourage developers to build near those hubs can revitalize employment in cities. In Massachusetts, the state is passing laws that propose “MBTA communities” that create zoning districts that allow multifamily housing near transit stops. The rule proposes that all communities within a certain radius around transit stops must have a high housing density. A similar project in Santa Clara is expected to add 13,000 new riders. However, Massachusetts is working to avoid the mistakes made in Chicago, where transit authorities and developers largely focused on improvements that served White communities.

Minority communities and healthcare workers face some of the longest commute times to work. These long commutes can create negative health effects, which may exacerbate already challenged living conditions. To address transportation and inequality, public and private sector can work together to invest in infrastructure, improve employee benefits, and facilitate the linkage between employment and location.

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Google, MIT, Harvard, UPenn, Federal Reserve, now writing about inequality at AmericanInequality.substack.com

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