Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Some Jobs Are Less Transit-Oriented

This is another in a series of blog posts excerpted from Reconnecting America's report "Are We There Yet? Creating Complete Communities for 21st Century America"

Research by CTOD in 2008 found that people who commute by transit tend to work in the professional, technical or financial services sectors, or in insurance, government, or quasi-public agencies such as utilities — because these are jobs that are typically clustered together. Other industries that generate considerable ridership are hotels and some types of clothing stores. Not coincidentally this mix of businesses closely resembles what is typically found in transit-rich downtowns.

It’s not quite so easy for lower- and middle-skilled workers to commute by transit, however, either because they work at all hours — while transit service is most frequent during regular business hours — or because they work in manufacturing, warehousing or big box retail, which can’t be built at the densities and concentrations that are required to make it financially feasible to build transit to serve them.

Many people work into the evening and during the weekend, but this is especially true of lower-paid workers, including cleaning crews, security guards, restaurant workers, as well as people who work in the health care and service industries. These employees are the least likely to own cars and may be transit-dependent, and they sometimes work very late into the night, when it can feel unsafe to wait at a lonely bus stop with infrequent service.

It isn’t enough to create jobs if workers can’t even get to them, either because of where they’re located or the hours they require. The disconnect between jobs and transit service is discussed in a 2011 report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), which observes that in California cities more jobs have been created in areas not served by transit, and that in some instances jobs have also moved away from transit stations.

The report also notes that transit generates higher ridership when it connects people to jobs rather than to housing and apartments. This is why successful transit systems such as BART — which is reaching its capacity to carry workers into San Francisco’s financial district during morning rush hours — are looking for ways to better serve “reverse commuters” who can ride the trains back out of the city to suburban job centers. Higher employment density is also associated with higher ridership, and it is easier to connect transit to jobs with high employment density.

On The Way ThereCrossroads Of Opportunity

Chicago’s South Side used to be one of America’s principle freight hubs with a density of freight and passenger rail lines that made it one of the most well-connected and prosperous regions in the U.S. Moreover, it was a place where industrial workers were able to live and shop within walking distance of the plants where they worked — residential and industrial neighborhoods were able to co-exist because driving wasn’t required by either car or by truck since both people and freight traveled by rail.

The south suburbs fell on hard times when shipping by truck gained favor over freight rail. But there’s a redevelopment effort underway, an initiative of the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology and the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, that’s grown to include 42 cities that are reinvesting in their historic assets: dense, mixed-use neighborhoods near stations; underutilized land available for development; a ready manufacturing workforce of both skilled and unskilled laborers; clusters of manufacturing and logistics businesses; and still-frequent freight and commuter rail service.

The idea is to organize a regional economic cluster anchored by intermodal freight terminals, green manufacturing and supportive businesses to provide jobs and prosperity for those who live nearby. The project has become a test case to see if linking transit-oriented development around commuter rail and “cargo-oriented” development around freight rail could be an effective and sustainable redevelopment strategy. By coordinating development around rail it will once again become possible to create communities where workers can minimize the money and time they would otherwise spend commuting, in the meantime helping to create local jobs and a thriving local economy, as well as a robust housing market.

The “Green Time Zone” project is now expanding this initiative with the goal of creating a supportive cluster of green manufacturers and businesses interested in reducing the pollution caused by freight movement. Cargo-oriented development can help drive demand for their green products because the enhanced logistics of the freight increases reliability and reduces costs, meantime creating jobs where they are needed most. While many people still associate south Cook County with the slow death of American industry this project suggests the enormous promise of a green “Made in America” label that could make the south suburbs the new crossroads of opportunity.

More Blog Posts In This Series