Transit alone cannot solve the systemic problems behind job inaccessibility

bus stop at route 237 & Eastland Road

An actual stop for the #86 bus alongside Route 237 in Cleveland (courtesy of Google Maps).

In my last post, I dug into the debate over which approach is better – bringing people to jobs or jobs to people – by examining case studies from San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul. But, as I noted, the studies I examined assume that the relationship between transit and job accessibility occurs in a vacuum. Things are not that clean in the real world.

Furthermore, one can argue – as Peter Truog and others have – that, while it may make sense to invest in transit-oriented development (TOD) and the “jobs to people” approach on paper, it is impractical. Planning and building fixed transit assets can take a decade or more. Encouraging businesses to relocate along existing transit lines and form new, transit-rich clusters also takes time.

In the meantime, people of color in high-poverty neighborhoods will continue to struggle to access jobs in far-flung suburbs. It must be better then to connect these neighborhoods with existing low-skill, entry level jobs with buses in order to give them a leg up and not keep them locked out of the job market.

There is merit to this argument. Shifting transit systems from hub-and-spoke (radial) networks focused on the central business district (CBD) to a grid system focused on multiple destinations is one effective alternative. The success of Houston’s redesign bears this out.

Research supports the benefits of moving away transit systems away from a radial service orientation to a multi-destination one, as well. Jeffrey Brown and Gregory Thompson, researchers at Florida State, have published several studies illustrating this point. In a 2008 paper (paywall), they found that metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with multi-destination transit systems outperformed those with radial systems for ridership, service productivity, and cost-effectiveness.

With this in mind, I want to examine the economics – both financial and political – of connecting people to jobs with transit in Northeast Ohio. Ultimately, when we explore these broader factors, it becomes clear that, while busing a low-income worker from Central to a manufacturer in Solon may help that individual, it remains insufficient to the problem at hand.

Are we bringing people to jobs or just chasing jobs with transit?

While improving system performance is an absolute good that all transit agencies should pursue, it does not necessarily mean that a city will see improvements in job accessibility for low-income people of color.

Moreover, system redesigns are useful, but transit systems still require minimum levels of population and job density in order to deliver high-quality service and remain cost-effective. According to Robert Cervero and Erick Guerra, job density is more important than residential density. These minimum thresholds of job density simply do not exist in most metros any more, particularly Cleveland.

In a 2009 paper, Elizabeth Kneebone from Brookings traced the outward shift of jobs in American cities. She examined the location of jobs in the 98 largest MSAs from 1998-2006, focusing on three bands around the CBD: a 3-mile radius for the central city, a 10-mile radius for the “beltway,” and a 35-mile radius to define the metro’s sprawl area.

Her analysis showed that just 21% of employees work within 3 miles of downtown, while a plurality (more than 45%) work between 10 and 35 miles away from the CBD. Additionally, she found that jobs were growing fastest in these outer areas; jobs at least 10 miles from the CBD grew 2.5 times faster than those in the beltway ring and 57 times faster than those in the central city.

We may have heard much since the end of the Great Recession about the revival of cities and the shift away from suburbia, but this shift has not occurred for jobs.

Another 2015 report from Kneebone and colleague Natalie Holmes makes clear that the suburbanization of people and jobs quickened during the 2000s. As a result, “by 2010 in the nation’s largest metro areas, the majority of every major ethnic and racial group and the majority of the poor lived in suburbs for the first time.”

The rate of outward growth was faster for jobs than people, though. Kneebone and Holmes concluded that the number of jobs within a typical commute for a resident of 96 major MSAs fell by 7% from 2000 to 2012. Nowhere was this change greater than in Cleveland, which saw a 26.5% decrease in the number of jobs available within a normal commute.

Given these trends and the realities facing GCRTA, trying to bring low-income workers from neighborhoods like Central to employment centers like Solon would be less about bringing “people to jobs” and more about chasing jobs with transit. What’s the likelihood that a new bus route to a suburban job campus will still be useful in 3 to 5 years?

cleveland job sprawl 2000-2012

No city saw a larger decrease in the number of accessible jobs from 2000 to 2012 than Cleveland (courtesy of The Brookings Institution).

Whither the job hubs?

And even if you know the jobs would remain stationary in the short-term, which locations should GCRTA prioritize?

Jobs have sprawled to such an extent in Northeast Ohio that few actual job hubs remain. NOACA has found that fewer than one-quarter of all jobs in Northeast Ohio are concentrated in the region’s 6 largest job hubs, and only one such hub – Cleveland’s CBD – contains more than 10% of jobs. Most parts of the region simply lack the job density needed for new transit investments to secure funding and be cost-effective.

Given GCRTA’s well-documented and ongoing budgetary crisis, shouldn’t it be on the employers in places like Solon to step up and address their own workforce recruitment challenges?

There are several options that they could pursue, on their own or in concert with GCRTA. They could join GCRTA’s new vanpool program, which can help up to 15 people get to work in one vehicle. They could run their own shuttle service, like many companies already do in the Bay Area. They could invest in first-mile/last-mile initiatives like carshare or bikeshare programs to make it easier from employees to get from a bus stop to the worksite. (Because, yes, the 41 and 41F buses already run to Solon)

Each of these options provides some of the benefits of car ownership without placing the steep financial burden upon the low-income worker. Research suggests that owning a car doubles the odds of low-income person finding a job and quadruples the odds that s/he keeps it. Transit, on the other hand, only seems to help people keep jobs they already have.

And if these employers are, in fact, committed to bringing new transit investments to their doorsteps, why don’t they approach GCRTA with public-private partnership options? Perhaps employers in a hub like Solon could use tax increment financing (TIF) and take advantage of the increased property values that fixed transit investments would generate to cover the capital costs.

We can’t fix systemic issues with “imagination”

The problem is not just a lack of imagination and creative solutions, as Peter Truog suggests. In reality, it is much larger than that.

As I’ve illustrated, employers have known for at least 20 years that their outward migration was creating a spatial mismatch between them and potential employees, yet they continued to sprawl regardless. Hell, public officials were discussing this in detail during the 1990s, and GCRTA even created a vanpool program to address it at the time.

Some observers have argued that employers may be relocating to suburbia and exurbia in response to residential sprawl. If that was the case, perhaps facilitating the suburbanization of low-income residents and people of color could actually address spatial mismatch.

Unfortunately, that argument does not hold up to even the slightest scrutiny. In a 2007 paper, Michael Stoll and Harry Holzer of Brookings examined population and job growth rates in central cities, low-income suburbs, and high-income suburbs.

Residential populations grew at a faster clip in low-income suburbs than in high-income – 36% and 16%, respectively – reflecting the suburbanization of poverty in recent years. In contrast, jobs grew 30% faster in high-income suburbs, suggesting that jobs are shifting towards these more exclusive locales, where few low-income workers live. These location decisions are likely exacerbating spatial mismatch.

Stoll also tackled this topic in regards to race in an earlier study. In this analysis, he examined the relationship between job sprawl and spatial mismatch in 300 MSAs in the year 2000. He found that, while there is no statistically significant relationship between job sprawl and spatial mismatch for whites, one exists for blacks and Latinos.

Each 10% increase in the job sprawl index score was associated with a 3.1% and 1.7% increase the spatial mismatch index scores for blacks and Latinos, respectively. The link between job sprawl and spatial mismatch for blacks was especially significant in large Midwestern metros, like Cleveland and Detroit.

Transit alone won’t solve civil rights issues

But, perhaps all of that is in the past. What if you had a particularly woke set of employers who wanted to address that mismatch by encouraging low-income black workers to move closer to available jobs?

Well, you’d likely just run head first into systemic questions of housing discrimination and exclusionary zoning. Dozens of studies and reports from several cities – including Cleveland – have documented our job accessibility crisis for years now. And yet, not only has the problem persisted, it has gotten worse.

Susan Turner, a researcher at Wayne State University, provided a valuable insight into this question with her 1997 study (PDF) in Detroit.

Turner interviewed a number of employers in suburban Detroit who faced comparable workforce challenges. What she found was revealing. Instead of relocating to the suburbs to follow workers, Turner’s interviews suggested that many employers were intentionally moving to such locations in order to avoid black workers and keep their workforces white.

She noted that, while every predominately white suburban firm cited poor transportation as the reason why they couldn’t hire black workers, the firms that hired black workers not only faced these same challenges, they were often located in more remote sites. But they and their employees still managed to overcome these barriers.

Turner argued that her study “challenges the assumption that merely removing physical barriers to places of employment would improve the labor market outcomes of blacks.”

Instead,

Negative racial attitudes aided the creation of the spatial mismatch. Thus, spatial mismatch, while partly due to economic factors related to finding cheaper land for new production processes, also results from persistent racial animosities and discrimination that find their expression through spatial variables.

One anecdote in the study was particularly eye-opening. Turner recounted a story that an urban planning official in Detroit told her. The planner’s agency attempted to set up a vanpool program for low-income Detroit workers in the mid-1990s, but they could not find any interested in employers.

According to Turner, when the planner asked the employers why they would not take part, “most indicated that they did not want to hire black workers, stating ‘Why do you think we moved out here in the first place?’”

Transportation (and the provision of public transit) may be a civil rights issue, but it is not sufficient to overcome these sort of systemic civil rights abuses.

Truog and those who support his view have not engaged with this massive topic. The fact of the matter is, Solon has pursued and continues to pursue exclusionary zoning policies that harm low-income people of color. When developers proposed a multi-family housing development in 2014, residents created the committee against rezoning Solon (CARS). (Side note: that acronym is a little too on the nose.)

These opponents tried to couch their opposition to the apartments under the guise of zoning, but the group’s leader, Don Gallo, was more explicit. He told reporters that the apartments “will not attract the wealthier young people…They will attract riff-raff.”

The ever-present specter of racism, which has only grown more ominous in recent months, continues to plague these discussions.

Conclusion

Ultimately, in my view, a problem this large requires a multifaceted approach.

  1. In the immediate term, employers with workforce challenges in suburbs like Solon should step up and tackle their own problems by implementing the sorts of programs I outlined earlier. Spatial mismatch is a problem that warrants the attention of the public sector, but that does not mean the private sector can wash its hand of it. We’ve spent more than enough public money to subsidize sprawl and then clean up its consequences.
  2. In the short- to medium-term, GCRTA should pursue a system redesign, moving from a radial to a multi-destination service orientation, like Houston and Columbus. This approach would be beneficial for the agency and the region, even if it fails to address job accessibility.
  3. And, in the long-term, the region’s elected officials and planning agencies should devote their attention and resources on TOD in order to take advantage of the benefits that it creates. Not only will it reduce the financial and environmental burdens of sprawl and chip away at job inaccessibility, it can also help firms take advantage of the benefits of industry agglomeration, which would increase their productivity and output.

Fortunately, there is no inherent conflict between 2 and 3. On the contrary, Brown and Thompson, in a 2012 paper analyzing transit in Broward County, Florida, wrote,

Contrary to what many planners believe, developing a multi-destination transit system does not necessarily work at cross-purposes with the planning goal of clustering urban development. One consequence of a multi-destination grid is the emergence of a number of strong routes. Planners develop transfer centers along such routes, and these centers can develop into strong development nodes.

We can begin to address Northeast Ohio’s overarching job accessibility issues. But we cannot do it if we ignore the systemic challenges behind them, and we cannot do it if we fail to take a regional approach. Both of these will require much more than just running another bus to Solon. It will require us to acknowledge and begin to ameliorate the 800-pound gorilla in the room.