In an Unequal America, Getting to Work Can Be Hell

In an Unequal America, Getting to Work Can Be Hell

In an Unequal America, Getting to Work Can Be Hell

Welcome to the world of transit deserts and extreme commutes, where your income can determine if and how you reach your job.


They don’t know each other; they live 60 miles apart; and, at least on the surface, Carrie Blough and Karen Allen don’t have much in common. But ask them about their journeys to and from their jobs every day, and their stories converge in a shared narrative of commuter hell.

Blough, a museum curator who lives in Brunswick, Maryland, starts her day at 4 am to prepare to catch the 6:40 am Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train for the ride to downtown Washington, DC. The ride usually takes about 80 minutes one-way—if there’s no freight-rail congestion or mechanical problems—but getting to Union Station, the last stop on MARC’s West Virginia–to-DC line, is only the first turn of her daily public-transit grind.

“I think about my commute as [really starting] once I get off my train—and then I go,” says Blough of the frenzied rush to squeeze past fellow commuters and onto the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority subway, known as the Metro. It takes her another five minutes, via train, to get to the Farragut North stop, after which it’s back to the rush: “Then I’m in motion. Then I’m fighting crowds, then I’m being stressed out.”

Allen’s commute from her Southeast Washington apartment to her job as a housekeeper at an upscale hotel is more straightforward: One bus to the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, seven miles away. It’s a 25-minute ride, more or less, in light traffic.

But if Blough’s trip to work is a 95-minute marathon, with a 6:40 am starting gun, Allen’s is a daily game of Mass-Transit Roulette: She wagers her 8 am clock-in time against an unreliable, catch-as-catch-can transit-bus system and notoriously congested DC traffic.

Allen’s alarm sounds at 5 am and, after coffee and walking the dog, she makes sure to leave the house at 6:25 am. That’s when her particular line of TheBus, Prince George’s County transit service that weaves into her neighborhood, will arrive.

“I leave my house the exact same time that the [6:25 am] bus leaves the station and either I meet up with the bus or I wait because the bus is late,” says Allen, citing it as a reason she allows herself roughly an hour to get to work. An overdue bus, she says, is common: Sometimes it’s 20 minutes late, sometimes 30. Sometimes it doesn’t show up at all.

There’s a Plan B, Allen says: At the same stop, Metro runs a bus, NH-1, that ends its route in National Harbor, and she’ll take that one if it beats TheBus to her stop. But the NH-1, she says, “goes all over the place before it hits the Gaylord,” adding precious minutes to a trip that should take less than half an hour on a good day.

“Nobody likes to catch that one,” says Allen. “It takes too long.”

One saving grace: Allen’s schedule doesn’t require her to work late hours, when transit options are still more limited: TheBus is even less reliable after 7 pm than it is in the morning, and the Metro bus stops running altogether at midnight. That means that people who work the graveyard shift can wind up stranded at the hotel, waiting for the bus to start back up at 5:45 am.

“One lady [whose shift ended at 3 am] used to sleep in the cafeteria until the bus starts running again,” Allen says.

Blough and Allen are two sides of a growing national problem: Commuters who, chiefly for economic reasons, are forced to depend on far-flung and frequently unreliable mass-transit systems to get around.

The problem traps so-called “extreme commuters” like Blough, who spend 90 minutes or more on a bus or a train because skyrocketing housing costs in the Washington region and other metro areas mean they can’t afford to live closer to their jobs. But it also sweeps in people like Allen—hourly-wage workers who may have secured affordable housing but spend a disproportionate amount of time getting to and from work because of broken, unreliable transit systems.

Consider: In 2005, according to statistics, some 3.1 million workers nationwide commuted for 90 minutes or more one way, as Blough does, but that number had nudged up to 4 million by 2016. That’s at least in part because, as gentrification has jacked up housing prices in desirable areas like Washington—regularly listed as one of nation’s most expensive cities in which to live—low- and middle-income households have retreated further into the suburbs and urban periphery. And that, in turn, has caused them to spend more time and money on getting to and from work.

“A lot of these workers in low-wage jobs—they either have to [move] to Prince George’s County, Maryland, or Alexandria, Virginia, and the transportation network has not changed to meet the changing demands,” says Yesim Sayin Taylor, an economist and founding executive director of the DC Policy Center, a think tank focusing on Washington’s economic and social issues. “Even though transportation is costly, it’s less costly than living in the city.”

At the same time, transit analysts say hourly-wage workers like Allen, who are disproportionately reliant on mass transit, are also disproportionately hurt by it when it’s slow and inefficient, forcing them to make an extra effort—and spend stressful, unpaid hours sitting on a bus—just to clock in on time. The result, according to an Apartment List study released in April: “a nexus between super-commuting and poverty.”

Census data compiled by the District of Columbia’s Office of Revenue Analysis illustrates this growing overlay of spatial and economic inequality.

Some of the highest-paid workers in DC, including doctors, lawyers, legislators, or CEOs, enjoy the shortest commute of around 25 minutes and usually take the car, according to the data. Middle-income white-collar workers—writers, public-relations specialists, museum curators like Blough—tend to either drive or take mass transit to work, with an average commute time of around 25 to 30 minutes. At roughly 120 minutes, Blough’s commute is nearly five times as long.

Meanwhile, workers who earn the lowest wages—including housekeepers like Allen, as well as construction workers, restaurant kitchen staff, retail workers, security guards—face the longest commutes, averaging between 33 and 37 minutes. They’re often riding the bus, $2 one-way with a free transfer, but not the subway, which can cost $5 or more per ride.

Those twin costs of time and money add up across the income spectrum: White-collar workers like Blough have to run faster and longer just to stay in place, while Allen and other hourly-wage employees who want to get ahead have to fight against bigger financial and logistical burdens.

And if, by some chance, you happen to take a tumble down the economic ladder and fall into poverty—as I did in 2012—good luck climbing back up.

I learned about spatial economic inequality firsthand, the hard way: I live and work in Washington, but some tough luck and poor decisions in 2013 led to my eviction from a $2,000-a-month apartment in Silver Spring, just steps from a Metro bus and subway hub.

That summer, I found emergency shelter by house-sitting for vacationing friends of friends—keeping pets fed, putting garbage on the curb, and collecting the mail to ward off burglars. That included a week occupying the home of an affluent family in Mount Vernon, a leafy residential suburb about 15 miles south of Washington proper.

It was a sweet gig: a den with a TV the size of a small billboard, a regulation pool table in the rec room, and, next to the guest bedroom, a bathroom shower that mimicked a gentle rain. The big drawback, though, was getting around and job-hunting without a car in Mt. Vernon, where, compared to the city, the public-transit system is effectively nonexistent.

In the city, I was used to a quick stroll to the nearest bus stop; in Mt. Vernon, the closest Fairfax Connector bus stop to my temporary home was about three-quarters of a mile away on Fort Hunt Road, a gently rolling, two-lane artery. Calling it a “bus stop” is generous; more accurately, it was a signpost planted between the gravel shoulder and a roadside culvert.

No bench, no shelter, no sidewalk—not even a curb—between me and traffic.

Meanwhile, getting there in time to catch the Connector to get to the Metro meant threading the needle of time and distance.

The stop was a 15-minute walk away in fair weather, and the bus was scheduled to run in half-hour intervals. But the timetable was more of an estimate, thanks to the indecipherable rhythms of traffic on Fort Hunt, once a low-congestion country road, until housing developers swept through, putting up subdivisions and bringing more traffic.

Light traffic on Fort Hunt meant an early bus, which was actually bad news, because the driver wouldn’t stop if no one was there waiting. On the other hand, if there was congestion, the bus would be late and I’d have to stand around waiting—rain or shine, blazing heat or arctic cold. But at least I’d be there when the bus showed up.

Trying to navigate these fickle rhythms meant adding a 10-minute cushion to my walk and accepting the fact that to be on time to wherever I was going, I’d have to spend part of my day standing around a sign on the side of the road, watching cars race by.

The problems of modern-day transit inequality—in particular, those of transit deserts, where would-be riders have little access to buses or subways—are hardly unique to Washington.

In Chicago, for instance, where commuters depend heavily on the “L” train system, Junfeng Jiao and Nicole McGrath, both of the University of Texas at Austin, found that “just three of the [multiple] transit desert neighborhoods that we identified house approximately 176,806 residents” out of a population of roughly 2.7 million. In San Antonio, the seventh-largest city in the country, “some 334,530 people—nearly one-fourth of the population—need access to public transportation in a city that doesn’t even have rail service.”

To navigate a transit desert means learning to live with “a two-level consequence,” Jiao, director of the Urban Information Lab at UT-Austin, told me. Besides fighting through the common frustrations every commuter experiences, riders from transit deserts must deal with the aggravation of possibly missing the bus and enduring a long wait for the next one. The stress, he said, is invisible but pernicious.

Even for mundane trips—grocery shopping, doctor’s appointment, meeting with a child’s teacher, hanging out with a friend—“basically you’re living on the bus schedule,” Jiao said. “Even if the bus is on time, you [still] have to get there on time and endure the mental pressure” of playing “beat the clock” with an unreliable transit system.

That describes Allen’s experience, traveling both to and from work. Even a smartphone app that has real-time information about bus arrival and departure times isn’t much help, especially on the way home from work during rush hour.

“My app may say that [the bus] ain’t coming for 63 minutes. If [it] ain’t coming for 63 minutes and the NH-1 is coming and it’s cold outside, then I hop on the NH-1, even though I may be sitting on that bus for 45 minutes to an hour” just to get across the Washington city line.

But the problem of transit deserts goes well beyond inconvenience. In a world in which one inequity often begets other inequities, multiple studies suggest a long or complex commute can exacerbate poverty. It does this, in part, by forcing low-income people to spend a hefty chunk of their household budget just getting to work; in bad weather, for instance, Blough’s monthly MARC pass is upward of $240, and in bad weather she shells out as much as $20 a pop on a one-way ride share on the trip between Union Station and her office.

Even more pernicious, it can shut down access to better-paying jobs altogether. As Jiao and McGrath report: “Inadequate transportation keeps people from finding work, which then reduces the productivity of their communities.”

In my case, it felt next to impossible to find a job when I was stuck in the bedroom-community suburbs; aside from grocery stores, convenience stores, and nail salons, there weren’t many opportunities for a middle-aged journalist working through hard times. Indeed, I didn’t find work again until after I moved into a guest room in northeast Washington, with access to MetroBus and the subway line.

I took a bus and the subway to downtown Silver Spring, walked into a sporting-goods store, and, after a face-to-face meeting with the manager, convinced him to hire me.

While it’s easy to find proof of deep transit inequities, policies to get rid of them—and upgrade the nation’s major mass-transit systems—have the shimmery quality of mirages.

Washington and other cities are embracing cutting-edge ideas like bike lanes and bike- and scooter-share programs—mass-transit alternatives that are popping up in gentrified areas. But they’re as scarce as hen’s teeth in poor neighborhoods, and unfeasible in suburban areas where riding on a two-lane blacktop during rush hour is dangerous, to say the least.

Meanwhile, the bad news keeps coming for people who depend on mass transit.

In Washington last year, authorities playing catch-up with maintenance imposed weeks-long shut downs of entire Metro stations after a series of mishaps in recent years—including a deadly crash that killed nine people in 2009. Delays and breakdowns are still common, however, and Metro authorities are planning to impose season-long shutdowns of numerous stations in 2019.

And in New York City, the beleaguered subway system has become a continual source of frustration and rage, as packed trains, signal problems, and endless delays turn simple commutes into high-stress obstacles courses. The cause of the decline is clear: Service and safety issues, which are the legacy of decades of state and federal leaders short-changing mass transit budgets, while taking the systems for granted. People who can afford to are voting with their wallets: buying cars, using alternative transportation services like Uber, or moving closer to the city to cut down on their commutes, in the process driving up housing costs and adding to traffic congestion.

Indeed, in March of last year, TransitCenter, a New York–based public-transit advocacy group, released a major nationwide study showing that, in 2017, transit ridership dropped in New York—and 30 of the country’s other 35 major metro areas. A critical factor: unreliable service.

Yet falling ridership only means more headaches for poor and working-class people, especially those with credit issues, who need a debit card and smartphone to take advantage of bike- or car-sharing services that are sprouting in cities nationwide. To make up for the revenue shortfall, Washington Metro, for instance, hiked fares and cut service in the summer of 2017, mostly in areas that need more buses and trains, not fewer.

Tumbling ridership and less service has consequences for everyone else, too: more traffic on already overcrowded freeways, adding time to the average car commute.

For the rest of us non-drivers, it means more buses where riders are packed shoulder-to-shoulder on urban routes, fewer trains for workers in the exurbs who can’t afford to live in the city, and more “extreme commuters” like Carrie Blough.

“My [MARC] train is usually very reliable, but this past year has been horrendous,” Blough says, explaining that the problems started in the spring, when floods damaged part of the track, halting service for four days. In turn, freight trains, which share the line, were sidetracked during the repairs.

When service resumed, “we were going slow—we had freight traffic that got all backed up from those four days and it was terribly stressful,” Blough says. “And I just kept thinking, “Oh my God—is it worth it? What else can I do? What else can I possibly do, career-wise?”

In the mornings, she continues, “it’s not as bad if you’re late getting in to work because it’s going to work. But coming home—I don’t want to be late coming home. I have my precious few hours [before bedtime]. And that’s when it was really getting to me this summer.”

“There are days when I’m just…,” Blough trails off, then sighs heavily. “I can’t take it, you know?”

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