Equitable access to opportunity: The growing distance between people and jobs

By Mary Ebeling

Recent studies show that travel times and costs for all commuters are increasing, particularly in the past five years. A recent Citi Premier commuter index documents commuting costs an average of $2,600 per year, or around $12 a day. These costs are regressive in nature, creating a particular burden for lower-income commuters, who are much more likely to live farther from employment and have long commutes and travel times, regardless of mode. The inequitable impacts of this challenge manifests in lost opportunity for lower-income commuters.

Transportation provides access to opportunity. Increasingly, policy makers, researchers, and advocates are asking if this access is distributed evenly across neighborhoods and regions. Two recent studies document the increasing costs of commuting and the growing distance between people and jobs. Of particular concern is the disparate impact of these costs—measured in money and time—across different income groups and how these costs may impact upward social and economic mobility among poor households. Commuting also affects health, and the longer, more onerous commutes low-income workers endure suggests the mental and physical health costs of work trips are also disproportionately borne by society’s low-wage earners.

Analysis from the Brookings Institution documents another disturbing trend—that of increasing concentrations of poverty in parts of metro areas. Indeed, the growth of the suburban poor population outpaced the growth of the urban poor population between 2000 and 2012. Concentrated suburban poverty comes with challenges in addition to what is faced by the urban poor. Although jobs have also migrated to suburban areas, these employment centers tend to be distant from residential areas. In these situations, the lack of good transit and dispersed employment locations increases commuting costs for low-income populations significantly and reduces opportunities for upward mobility.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.