Low-income residents of Detroit and Milwaukee face formidable obstacles to job access. These two Rust Belt regions are consistently ranked among the most segregated in the country, and neither has a good transit system.
In both regions, the places that have been growing and adding jobs fastest have been been overwhelmingly sprawling, suburban areas inaccessible to people without cars.
A 2013 Brookings study ranked Detroit number one in the U.S. in job sprawl. According to that report, 77 percent of the region’s jobs are at least 10 miles outside of downtown. The national average is 43 percent.
Detroit’s woeful job access issues were perhaps best illustrated by James Robertson, a factory worker who commutes to a suburb that “opted out” of the regional transit system. Robertson’s brutal commute went viral, and while it was extreme even for Detroit, it highlighted a disjointed transit network that limits opportunity for many other residents.
Milwaukee faces a similar set of problems. As of December 2014, Milwaukee County had only regained 35 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, while outlying counties had regained 70 percent, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis. A 2013 study by Public Policy Forum found that about a third of the region’s 29 major job centers were inaccessible by transit. A local civil rights group recently prevailed in a suit against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for its continued prioritization of costly highway projects at the expense of vital transit connections.
Now, both Detroit and Milwaukee are considering similar measures to improve job access: high-quality bus service that will connect workers from the city to suburban job centers.