Public Transit, Jitneys and Poverty

Spatial Mismatch and Public Transit

Our currently inflexible public transportation prohibits individuals from accessing available jobs due to inefficient or nonexistent commuting routes. The root cause of this problem is spatial-mismatch; in fact, 40 percent of rural counties lack public transit systems, and even in metropolitan areas with extensive transit systems, less than half of jobs are accessible by transit.1 With an increasing number of poor living in the city and an increasing percentage of low skill job growth occuring in suburbs, a growing number of bus routes that would connect impoverished neighborhoods with employment centers have become too inefficient for operation.

As Nicole Stelle Garnett, an Assistant Professor of Law at Notre Dame points out in her 2001 article “The Road from Welfare to Work: Informal Transportation and the Urban Poor,” individuals struggling to get off welfare must reverse commute from inner-city areas to the suburbs, and conventional, fixed-route public transportation systems cannot aid these people. Busses are simply unable to reach many of these destinations, and taxi rides would be far too expensive. These logistical difficulties impede low-income individuals from seeking and even accepting employment. To quote directly from Garnett’s article,

“...public transportation networks… do not mesh well with the transportation needs of individuals struggling to go off welfare, many of whom must ‘reverse commute’ from inner-city residences to the suburbs, where the bulk of entry-level jobs are now located. Rarely can conventional, fixed-route, public transportation systems adequately serve these reverse commuters.

...The Department of Transportation's study of metropolitan Boston, for example, found that the vast majority of entry-level job opportunities available to welfare recipients in the Boston metropolitan area are located in suburban areas that are either under-served or inaccessible by public transportation.

Even when public transportation reaches a suburban job, reverse commuters frequently must transfer several times to reach their ultimate destinations. These transfers increase not only commute times--some reverse commuters must wait as long as one hour between connections --but also the likelihood that something will go wrong along the way, causing a delay that can have disastrous consequences. As a Washington Post article recently observed, ‘when buses do serve suburban employment centers, the commutes can be long, complicated and circuitous, with a high chance of missed connections, which can mean problems with a boss.’

… Scheduling limitations impose a particular hardship on those who face welfare time limits and work requirements. Low-skilled workers are more likely to work during off-peak hours than the population as a whole.

The interviews conducted for Wilson's 1996 study of inner-city Chicago demonstrate how the logistical difficulties of public transportation impede the job prospects of low-income individuals, at times precluding them from seeking and accepting employment.”


As you can see, inefficient or nonexistent commuting routescan prohibit individuals from accessing available jobs. As surely as this problem exists today, it will exist tomorrow, for public transit systems are unlikely to get much better over the long run. Samual R. Staley, PH.D. (Director of the urban futures program for the Reason Public Policy Institute and an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy who has written two books and more than three dozen articles, studies, and reports on urban development issues and policy), explains this in his 1998 paper “Sprawl and the Michigan Landscape: A Market Oriented Approach:”

“Few communities have the kinds of mass transit systems in place necessary to accommodate a significant share of current commuting trips. Indeed, most urban mass transit systems are neither efficient nor cost-effective under current policies. Light rail systems are too inflexible and costly to be effective mass transit alternatives. Until cities deregulate their transit industry or institute “curb rights”—reducing burdensome licensing and inspection systems for taxi, van, and bus services—cost-effective mass transit is unlikely to emerge.”

Furthermore, in 1992, Robert Cervero (a professor at Berkeley with a P.H.D in Urban Planning and Management) explained that the monopoly which public transit enjoys is ineffective and harmful:

In general, the natural monopoly argument for regulating entry into the urban commuter bus and van service market has lost credibility. Studies have consistently shown that with the exception of rapid rail operations, most mass transportation services operate under conditions of constant returns to scale—costs increase proportionately with production. On balance, the benefits accruing to the traveling public from lifting entry controls have been viewed by CPUC [California Public utilities commission] as outweighing the lost market shares caused by increased competition.18

Here, Cervero not only states that public transit is more costly the larger it gets, but that because of this, in the hypothetical situation that markets open up to increased transit competition, then the downside of a loss of public transit market share would be outweighed by the benefits to the public of greater transportation effectiveness.

Speaking of the possible benefits of a more competitive transit market, let’s discuss one competitor, the jitney.