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How long commutes worsen inequality

It took Americans 25.1 minutes, on average, to get to work according to the U.S. Census Bureau's last nationwide study of the topic in 2009. Of course, for many workers it took much longer than that, with some areas far worse than others.

And 25.1 minutes is just one way. Altogether, for far too many workers, particularly low-income and minority households, long commutes deprive them of job opportunities, reduce the time they have to spend with and care for their families and perpetuate socio-economic inequality across generations.

The longest and shortest commutes in the country
The longest and shortest commutes in the country

How close families live, on average, to available jobs has important implications for economic and social progress, particularly for disadvantaged groups. Workers who live further away from job centers have less opportunity than workers who live closer, and that limits the former's economic mobility.

Workers who don't own a car are particularly vulnerable. If a job can't be reached by public transportation, it's not available to them.

For those who do have jobs, long travel times to and from work take away from chores at home, shopping at the grocery store for healthy food and so on. Lengthy commutes make it harder for these workers to spend time with their kids on homework and extra-curricular activities, and harder to enroll their kids in charter or alternative schools that might give them a better chance at success.

This is how long commuting distances can perpetuate inequality across generations, not to mention the environmental and congestion costs associated with long commutes.

How have commuting times been changing in recent years? Do typical households live closer to their workplaces than in the past, or farther away? A recent study from Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes of the Brookings Institution looked at such questions and found:

  • Between 2000 and 2012, the number of jobs within the typical commuting distance for residents in a major metro area fell by 7 percent.
  • As employment suburbanized, the number of jobs near both the typical city and suburban resident fell.
  • As poor and minority residents shifted toward suburbs in the 2000s, their proximity to jobs fell more than for nonpoor and white residents.
  • Residents of high-poverty and mainly minority neighborhoods experienced particularly pronounced declines in job proximity.

The results were even worse for low-income and minority households. According to the results, The number of jobs near the typical Hispanic (-17 percent) and black (-14 percent) resident in major metro areas declined much more steeply than for white (-6 percent) residents, a pattern repeated for the typical poor (-17 percent) versus nonpoor (-6 percent) resident.

What can governments do to reduce the magnitude of this problem? Tailored housing or transportation strategies that pay close attention to the distribution of housing and jobs can help. The authors cite Seattle's decision to discount bus fares for low-income households as one example of this.

But it's also possible to make decisions about the extension of transportation infrastructure, zoning, tax incentives to induce businesses to locate in particular areas and so on that help to alleviate the distance problem.

To be successful, however, governments must work collaboratively because these problems often extend across multiple government jurisdictions. As the authors say, their results point to the need for more integrated and cooperative regional strategies concerning economic development, housing, transportation and workforce decisions that take job proximity into account.

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