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Where the Jobs Are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit


An analysis of data from 371 transit providers in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas reveals that:

  • Over three-quarters of all jobs in the 100 largest metropolitan areas are in neighborhoods with transit service. Western metro areas like Los Angeles and Seattle exhibit the highest coverage rates, while rates are lowest in Southern metro areas like Atlanta and Greenville. Regardless of region, city jobs across every metro area and industry category have better access to transit than their suburban counterparts.
  • The typical job is accessible to only about 27 percent of its metropolitan workforce by transit in 90 minutes or less. Labor access varies considerably from a high of 64 percent in metropolitan Salt Lake City to a low of 6 percent in metropolitan Palm Bay, reflecting differences in both transit provision, job concentration, and land use patterns. City jobs are consistently accessible to larger shares of metropolitan labor pools than suburban jobs, reinforcing cities’ geographic advantage relative to transit routing.
  • The suburbanization of jobs obstructs transit’s ability to connect workers to opportunity and jobs to local labor pools. Fortunately, some metro areas exhibit near ubiquitous transit coverage rates and enable their jobs to access over half of their local labor pools, proving that expanded transit networks and integrated land use decisions can improve transit’s utility to employers. As metro leaders continue to grapple with limited financial resources, it is critical for transit investment decisions to simultaneously address suburban coverage gaps as well as disconnected neighborhoods. Those decisions should be made in concert with actors from other public agencies and the private sector.


Three years since the onset of the Great Recession, national and metropolitan labor markets continue to show signs of weakness. The national unemployment rate is still percentage points higher than pre-recession levels, while many metropolitan labor markets face unemployment rates above the national average, some beyond fifteen percent.1 Worryingly, economists admit the most commonly cited unemployment rates undersell American joblessness by ignoring those no longer seeking work and positively counting those involuntarily working shorter hours.2

Yet at the same time that many Americans cannot find full-time work, some employers cannot hire suitable workers for their vacancies. Media reports con.rm a skills mismatch in highly technical work like advanced manufacturing to centuries-old work like mining.3 Some of these mismatches involve professional training shortfalls, but others find origins in education deficits. Recent Brook­ings research found that metro areas with larger “education gaps”—shortages of educated workers relative to employer demand—had consistently higher unemployment rates than other metro areas from 2005 to 2011.4

But even if a metropolitan labor pool’s skills do match current job openings, employers also need workers to have physical access to those jobs. Indeed, this is one of the primary purposes of metropolitan transporta­tion networks, and the efficiency, quality, and cost of that network affects employers’ ability to access broad pools of labor.5 Fortunately, America’s roadway network is robust and decades of investments mean essen­tially every job is accessible by the vehicles that use it.

While automobiles do provide broad job accessibility, there is no guarantee the trip is easy. The nation’s average distance to work jumped from 9.9 miles in 1983 to 13.3 miles in 2009.6 Meanwhile, as solo drivers topped 74 percent of all commuters, the average number of hours wasted in traffic increased from 14 hours in 1982 to 34 hours in 2010.7 Just as importantly, there is still a sizable portion of Americans that confront longer commuting distances without a vehicle. The costs of owning and operating a vehicle are such that ten percent of American households in the nation’s largest metro areas do not have access to a private vehicle. Compared to their car-owning counterparts, zero-vehicle households are more likely to earn low incomes, live in cities, and take public transportation to work.8

Problems with the daily commute don’t just affect workers—they affect employers’ bottom lines too. The lack of reliability caused by persistent traffic congestion reduces the size of labor catchment areas.9 Other research finds that congestion geographically limits business markets, raises business-related transportation costs like logistics, and limits firm productivity through reduced employee productivity.10 Employee commut­ing costs also force businesses to increase wages to compensate for the congestion burden, which then pass additional costs along to the end consumer.11

Public transit offers businesses a possible solution to some of these congestion-related expenses. First, .rms’ employees can elect for an alternative to automobile congestion, whether it means multi-tasking on a bus route or speedier travel on a subway. Second, switching commuters from private automobiles to public transportation takes cars off the road, theoretically freeing up roadway capacity for the remaining vehicles, whether personal travelers or freight.12 But to actualize these benefits, a metro area must include a transit system that efficiently and equitably connects jobs to the broadest possible labor pool.

Unfortunately, little is known whether public transportation serves metropolitan jobs. Inconsistent data collec­tion, organization, and publication between transit agencies, plus the lack of federal requirements regard­ing geographic data collection, mean employers and residents have little knowledge about how well transit serves their metro area.

This information gap comes at a considerable consequence to employers. First, research .nds that workers prefer to take transit if it closely serves their job locations.13 Thus, employers could attract additional transit-reliant or transit-preferred labor pools if they locate near well-connected transit stops—but determining those transit-rich locations is difficult. Second, with decades of decentralizing development, employers may have little understanding of to what extent sometimes-antiquated transit routing efficiently connects their job sites to prospective labor pools.14 Finally, inconsistent transit information makes it difficult to judge the efficacy of public programs promoting transit usage for employment, such as the federal Job Access and Reverse Commute program or Partnership for Sustainable Communities discretionary grants.15

This brief attempts to .ll that gap by explicitly measuring how well fixed route transit connects jobs to met­ropolitan labor pools. First, it explores what shares of jobs are located near transit networks. Next, it adds labor pools to the analysis and determines how much labor is within reach of those same job locations. It concludes with a discussion of the implications for public policy ranging from transportation investment crite­ria, to land use and tax reform, and finally to information upgrades.


  1. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. For more information on metropolitan unemployment rates and other economic indicators, see the Brookings MetroMonitor homepage.
  2. For a complete picture of national employment, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Situation Summary (updated monthly).
  3. For a broad discussion of the current structural relationship between unemployment and the workforce’s skills, see: NPR All Things Considered, “2 Million ‘Open Jobs’? Yes, But U.S. Has A Skills Mismatch,” June 15, 2011.
  4. Jonathan Rothwell and Alan Berube, “Education, Demand, and Unemployment in Metropolitan America” (Washington: Brookings, 2011).
  5. Stephen Gibbons and Stephen Machin, “Transport and Labour Market Linkages: Empirical Evidence, Implications for Policy and Scope for Further UK Research” (London: HM Treasury, 2006).
  6. Brookings analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation 2009 National Household Travel Survey data.
  7. Driving alone statistic from: Brookings analysis of U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 Single-year American Community Survey Estimates. Congestion statistic from: David Schrank, et al, “Urban Mobility Report” (College Station: Texas Transportation Institute, September 2011).
  8. Adie Tomer and Robert Puentes, “Transit Access and Zero-Vehicle Households,” (Washington: Brookings, 2011).
  9. The UK’s Eddington Transportation Study focused a great deal on improving access to London’s skilled labor pool in order to improve the national economy. See: Rod Eddington, “Main Report: Transport’s Role in Sustaining the UK’s Productivity and Competitiveness,” (London: HM Treasury, 2006).
  10. Glen Weisbrod, Don Vary, and George Treyz, “Measuring the Economic Costs of Urban Traf.c Congestion to Business” (Washington: Transportation Research Board, 2003).
  11. For background on a series of studies regarding employee’s commutes effects on business costs, see: Glen Weisbrod, Don Vary, and George Treyz, “Economic Impacts of Congestion” (Washington: Transportation Research Board, 2001).
  12. For more information regarding public transportation’s effects on roadway congestion, see: Md Aftabuzzaman, Graham Currie, and Majid Sarvi, “Evaluating the Congestion Relief Impacts of Public Transport in Monetary Terms” (Tampa: Journal of Public Transportation, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2010).
  13. Jed Kolko, “Making the Most of Transit: Density, Employment Growth, and Ridership around New Stations” (San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, 2011).
  14. For more information regarding decentralizing development patterns, see: U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Summary Report: 2007 National Resources Inventory,” Natural Resources Conservation Service and Iowa State University (Washington, 2009).
  15. Thomas Sanchez and Lisa Schweitzer, “Assessing Federal Employment Accessibility Policy: An Analysis of the JARC Program,” (Washington: Brookings, 2008).

Brookings website