How Job Sprawl Robs People of Time, Money, and Economic Opportunity

In Rochester, nearly a third of bus commuters have to spend at least an hour to get to work. Photo: Pete Nabozny via Reconnect Rochester
In Rochester, nearly a third of bus commuters have to spend at least an hour to get to work. Photo: Pete Nabozny via Reconnect Rochester

What’s the cost of a long commute? If you’re struggling to make ends meet, spending hours each day just to get to work not only costs you time, it can also be a major barrier to economic mobility.

In Rochester, New York, the advocacy group Reconnect Rochester has been taking a close look at the 7,500 local workers who commute by bus. These commuters make, on average, about $15,000 per year compared to car commuters’ average of $30,000.

And compared to other upstate New York cities, Rochester bus riders are more likely to have very long trips to work — nearly a third contend with commutes that take over an hour each way.

This graph compares a Rochester transit commuter's total work time, including transportation, and wages from a downtown job to a sprawling suburban one. Graph:
If you have to ride the bus to a far-flung suburban job, your effective wages are much lower than if you had the same job in a more central, accessible location. Graph: Reconnect Rochester

Reconnect Rochester compares how two commute scenarios to similar jobs might affect life opportunities very differently:

Imagine you are a city resident who resides in the Beechwood neighborhood just northeast of downtown. You work 9am — 5pm at a store in Marketplace Mall and make $10 an hour. To arrive punctually, you must board the route 33 at 7:34 am and then transfer to the route 24 at the transit center at 8 am. This bus gets you to Marketplace Mall at 8:34 am, almost a half hour early but the next closest option is arriving at 8:56 am and you know you’ll be late due to the walk. According to Google Maps, you’ve just spent over 1 ½ hours to travel around 12 miles (at a whopping speed of 8 mph — if you are fit you can bike there faster). Your way home is a bit easier. If you can leave right at 5 pm, you can board a 5:10 pm bus and arrive back home at 6 pm. Your evening commute is 50 minutes. Together you’ve spent 2 hours and 20 minutes in commute, or 3.5 times longer in commute than the average regional resident does.

Let’s imagine how this commute effectively reduces your hourly wage and compare that wage to a hypothetical job at the Sibley Building in downtown, where you’d experience closer to the regional average commute time via a bus commute [results shown in above graph].

This long commute is not just a nuisance, it is a real barrier that prevents upward economic mobility.

This time spent commuting does not just reduce your effective earnings, it crowds out time available to do other things. You could be spending time with your kids, taking classes, or even picking up additional shifts at work. It seems reasonable to assume that more people would have jobs if it took less time to get to work.

What we’re also reading today: Good news from Bike Portland, which reports that the Oregon State Senate is considering increasing penalties for distracted driving to make them on par with drunk driving. And The Political Environment explains how Milwaukee was able to secure a streetcar, despite strong hostility to urban transit at the state level.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Either that or buy a car you can’t really afford.

  • RochesterSubway

    Rochester is fast approaching a fork in the road. They’ve launched a major community initiative to try and alleviate the high concentrations of poverty in the inner city, but at the same time the major regional employers (i.e. University of Rochester) are struggling to find parking spaces and build new highway access points for car commuters. Creating jobs is incredibly important, but we better have a way to get people to and from these jobs without forgetting about those who most badly need them. Thanks to Streetsblog for sharing this story.

  • AMH

    Yes, it’s important to mention why better transit, not car ownership, is the solution to this problem.

  • Albaby

    Indeed. Reading the article, one could come away with the impression that you could vastly improve these residents’ lives if you got them out of transit and into a car – reducing their commute times, widening their access to jobs, and improving their general economic upward mobility.

  • Joe R.

    I don’t see how anyone making $10 an hour could afford a car at all. Those kinds of wages are barely enough to cover food and housing, even in Rochester.

  • Joe R.

    This is the first time I’ve seen an article which actually includes travel time into the wage calculation. I did this all the time years ago, figuring it made sense to count all the time my job took, not just the hours I was physically there. I did one better by also including the impact of taxes and transit fares. For example, in 1988 I was supposedly making $7 an hour. However, my commute took 45 minutes each way, and I had 1/2 hour lunch which was unpaid. End result, my work day was really 10 hours, not 8. I took home something like $215 out of $280 after taxes. From that I subtracted my transit fare ($20 a week at the time because I was in a two fare zone). This left me a whopping $195 a week for 50 hours of my time, or $3.90 per hour. Pretty depressing. This is one reason I worked at home after I got laid off from that job. I usually didn’t do all that much worse off. On an average year I made about $5000, but that was also what I took home because I was in a zero tax bracket (there were a few hundred dollars a year for incorporation expenses but that was it). The real kicker though is maybe it only took 5 to 10 hours of my week to make that money, so I was effectively netting $10 to $20 an hour.

    Last few years I’ve had a great consulting gig which in part was made possible by the experience I gained doing various other jobs at home. I net maybe $70 an hour after taxes. To make this hourly rate on a traditional 40 hour a week job with an hour each way commuting, I would need to clear $3500 a week after taxes, which implies I’d have to make maybe $6000 a week before taxes. $300K jobs don’t exist in any large numbers. Granted, this gig only gives me about 20 hours a week on hour, but that’s still plenty of money. I net more than what my two siblings working traditional jobs make combined.

    If you have to drive to work (and only need a car for that reason) the calculations are even more depressing. If I needed to drive on that $7 an hour job, and say the car cost me $75 a week, I would have been making an effective wage of $2.80 an hour (assuming the commute took the same amount of time, which it probably would have). Honestly, it’s pointless working once you net low amounts like that.

  • murphstahoe

    Dovetail this with the Uber story. Share the cars, eliminate the parking, the jobs and housing are more dense, time money and economic opportunity go up

  • OaktownPRE

    Sprawl and awful transit options definitely have impact even when pay scales are higher and the gross, wanton destruction of the American natural environment by sprawl is something that we’ll be dealing with for a very long time, but a $7.25 minimum wage is at the root of this problem. Exquisite transit doesn’t solve that evil.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Its actually $9.00 an hour in New York state.

  • xplosneer

    I understand mobility issues but those are usually served by paratransit services as well. I cannot for the life of me understand why bus routes have continued to be significantly slower than biking though.

  • Please. 8 MPH on transit would be a welcomed luxury here in San Francisco, the supposed Transit First tech capital. On a good day, it takes me almost an hour to go less than 6 miles on the Muni system…and that’s on one train line. Long commutes, many of which are more than 2 hours one way, are common in the Bay Area. Many of these commuters are making big bucks too.

    I’m familiar with Rochester. It’s a decaying rust belt town with a barely breathing downtown. It has much bigger issues to deal with than whining about a 60-minute bus commute.

  • How about providing incentives to bring people back to the inner city to live AND work. Building new highways is only going to exacerbate the problem and encourage sprawl.

  • Joe R.

    Don’t forget regardless of what the “official” minimum wage is there’s a significant underground economy where people are paid cash wages far less than the minimum wage. I’ve known people making $2 an hour. It’s not all illegal aliens, either. Once you count employer and employee taxes, both parties might be better off if the person is paid $7 or $8 an hour off the books than $9 an hour on the books. The employer saves on matching FICA taxes, unemployment/disability insurance. The employee saves on income taxes which effectively reduce $9 an hour to maybe $7.50 or less after taxes. If the low wage job is a second job, the tax savings would be even greater if you’re paid off the books. Point of fact some employers will even pay off-the-books employees a slightly higher hourly just to avoid the extra taxes and paperwork. The well-intentioned but foolhardy move to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour will only result in the underground labor market expanding. Obviously a great solution to this might be exempting employers and employees making minimum wage from all income and payroll taxes.

  • Jason

    The fact that buses in the US rarely have any kind of grade separation or even their own lanes means that having to sit in the same traffic as everyone else is exacerbated by having to keep pulling in and out of that traffic to make stops.

  • xplosneer

    Yep, all true. We still design them with an incredible number of stops (and timed stops) per mile as well though. Maybe we should change that?

  • By having a second (or third) job.

  • Better bikeways would go even farther.

  • At an individual level, yes. Cars provide a level of mobility that takes a LOT of money to replicate with transit. This is particularly true in regions where transit is provided by a varied set of providers that aren’t integrated all that well. In more rural areas with no transit at all, a car is literally the only viable option beyond walking as even biking can have an insurmountable set of headwinds in the way.

  • What about biking? Google Maps shows a round trip time that is still nearly an hour faster by the most direct route or half an hour faster by detouring to the trails along the river.

  • Brandon

    The real message is locating job and affordable housing close together. If more jobs were located downtown as opposed to spread out in suburbs it would be easier to provide effective transit.

  • Brandon

    many bus systems are operated to maximize coverage and provide frequent stops. this creates long routes, with many stops. a direct bike route with no stops can be faster. this is a mentality of running buses for the poor, not as a competitive option.

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