Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Not Everyone Works For Google

Editor's Note: This week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? explores why communities need to pay attention to the ongoing reorganization of job markets in order to provide people of all skill levels with the transportation choices they need to access opportunity. This is what will make regions more competitive nationally and globally.

[N]ot everybody works for Google or has the option of using transit. Even though transit ridership has been at record highs — transit use has increased 38 percent since 1995 — transit agencies across the country are facing unprecedented fiscal crises in this recession, and they are laying off workers, cutting back service and raising fares at the worst possible time. The transit riders who are being left stranded tend to be older, African-American or Latino.

“As employers and commuters everywhere know only too well, public transportation is an essential service that is critical to our economy,” says James Corless, director of Transportation for America, a project of Reconnecting America and Smart Growth America. Corless says only 18 cents of every transportation dollar supports public transit and that, while the federal government requires a 25 percent match for every dollar of funding it provides for highways, it requires a dollar-for-dollar match for new transit projects.

Transportation for America is one of hundreds of national and community-based organizations, business leaders and others who contend that the nation needs a massive investment to repair crumbling transportation infrastructure — which would create jobs as well as make regional economies more sustainable, helping to make the U.S. more economically competitive.

Many employers across the country recognize the importance of easing worker stress: for example, the CEO of Christopher B. Burke Engineering, Ltd., in Rosemont, Illinois pays employees 75 cents a mile to commute by bike. Christopher Burke built lockers and showers, gives away bike equipment, and at the end of the year buys new bikes for the male and female employees who’ve ridden the most. Five years into the program 22 percent of staff is commuting by bike. The National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida keeps track of “Best Workplaces for Commuters,” and they include:

  • Cambridge Systematics in Cambridge, MA, reimburses money spent on transit passes; provides an on-site cafeteria, fitness center, showers and bike storage; and a location proximate to bike trails, a major commuter station, local grocers, shops, banks and restaurants.
  • The Grand Hyatt in Manhattan offers employees the federal government’s “pre-tax transit benefit” program, allowing commuters to save up to 40 percent on commuting costs by purchasing tickets before taxes.
  • IDF International provides a monthly subsidy for transit as well as the pre-tax benefit, flexible work schedules, laptops, and the choice to telework and telecommute.
  • Consumer Reports in NYC offers free van service to three rail stations, a carpooling program and database on the company’s intranet, guaranteed rides home, the opportunity to work from home, and bike racks, lockers and showers.
  • Fairfax County Government in Virginia helps employers implement “green commuter programs,” by assisting with commute surveys, computerized ride-matching, rideshare coordination with nearby companies, and will help implement the pre-tax benefit by providing a 50 percent match per employee.
  • University of California at Irvine’s Zotwheels self-service bikesharing program has automated stations at four key locations, and North Carolina State University’s WolfWheels bike loan program allows anyone with a campus ID to rent bikes for a day, week or all semester.
  • North Carolina University for Greensboro Transit Authority’s HEAT (Higher Education Area Transit) service — ridership doubled in one year.

A good job is not solely defined by the wages it pays but it also must be stable, and provide benefits as well as opportunities for advancement. For less-skilled workers, it’s also important that there’s a low barrier to entry. Middle-skill jobs usually require long-term on-the-job training. Harry Holzer, a leading expert on workforce training, says middle skill jobs make up nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, and that some of these jobs — for nurses, health technicians and construction workers, for example —are growing rapidly.

The challenge is ensuring that lower-skilled workers can qualify for these jobs and take advantage of the higher wages and greater job stability, which means they must be able to get to training and education programs, which are often not accessible by transit.

Some jurisdictions, however, are working to ensure there are transit connections: The Northwest Arkansas Community College partnered with Ozark Regional Transit to improve mobility for students, faculty and staff — and the general public — with three new routes providing access to college and training facilities. And when Durham Technical Community College in Durham, North Carolina, moved to a new site, it enhanced transit connections so as to minimize the impact on low-income students.

“Jobs in the transportation sector — including construction, maintenance and operations — provide middle-class career paths for all workers,” says PolicyLink CEO Angela Glover Blackwell. “By providing training and apprenticeships, access to capital, new networks and partnerships, and by enlisting emerging businesses that are owned by women and people of color, we can strengthen and expand the small businesses that are critical to the goal of creating and sustaining good jobs throughout the nation.”

The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) has negotiated “local-hire” agreements that increase access to construction careers for local residents. Moreover, because these are union jobs with apprenticeship programs that provide training, especially in safety — which many nonunion jobs do not — these policies create a skilled workforce that completes projects safely and on time, which is a win-win for both workers and taxpayers.

Madeline Janis, LAANE’s national policy director, notes these good jobs help stimulate the local economy by ensuring that local residents and businesses see the benefits of public spending. “By setting job standards and creating career paths, we are guaranteeing that public funds are not being used to create low-wage jobs with meager benefits that put a strain on taxpayers,” she says. “These workers will spend their earnings at local businesses, creating additional jobs. This economic activity will also contribute to our local tax revenues, which are in turn used to build these public projects.”

Complete communities are integral to the new economy, and cities and suburbs need to develop their opportunity areas into complete communities to help attract new talent. Moreover, we need to pay attention to the ongoing reorganization of job markets so we can provide people of all skill levels with the transportation choices they need to access opportunity. This is what will make regions more competitive nationally and globally. The Top 10 lists on the following pages highlight some of the regions that are doing well according to our Working metrics, which means they are getting closer to building complete communities.

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