For Low-Wage Workers, Public Transit Isn’t a Lifestyle Choice; It’s a Lifeline

Do you resent the amount of time you spend in your car plodding through clogged roadways as you commute, shuttle kids to school and activities, buy groceries and do other errands?

Shetara Brown of Tampa would gladly trade places with you. Too poor to own a car, the 23-year-old Tampa native doesn’t have an arduous commute; it’s a short walk to her job at Taco Bell, where she makes $8.10 an hour.

But everything else — from the three hours she spends each day getting her kids to and from her mom’s house just a few miles away to the four hours involved in bringing them to their pediatrician — can drain the joy from life as it drains meager financial resources.

Even a simple pleasure like some family time on one of the area’s world-renowned white-sand beaches is literally out of reach. “I love the beach, and the kids do, too,” Shetara says. “I wish I could take them there.”

The entire Tampa Bay area will continue to be at a serious economic disadvantage unless politicians, business leaders and voters make a real commitment to viable mass transit.

For Shetara’s family and the approximately 874,000 other bay-area working households that live below 200 percent of the federal poverty level — that’s 25 percent to 36 percent of households — public transportation is truly a bread-and-butter issue.

The last two decades’ steady decentralization of mid- to low-paying jobs to sprawling suburban areas ill-served by public transportation means that too many workers face grueling transportation challenges. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for all commuting modes, public transportation had the highest proportion of workers, 23 percent, with commutes of 60 minutes or longer. In low- and middle-skill industries, only about 25 percent of jobs are accessible via public transportation even within 90 minutes — and that’s each way.

Low-wage workers frequently cobble together two or more part-time jobs in dispersed locations and work irregular hours, often late at night or on weekends when public transportation is particularly scarce, if it’s available at all. These workers have less time for nurturing children (and usually have increased childcare costs), little chance to attend educational or training opportunities, and spend countless hours wasted in transit rather than on the clock.

What about those low-wage workers who drive to work?

According to the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, although the working poor spend a much higher portion of their income on commuting than other workers — 6.1 percent vs. 3.8 percent — the working poor who drive to work spend the most: 8.4 percent of their paltry pay.

Even worse, in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country, 700,000 households without access to a car also lack any access to public transportation. For these families, work must be reachable on foot, by bicycle or through the assistance of a neighbor willing to drive them on a regular basis to one or more jobs that may have no regular schedule.

A cynic might say we couldn’t design a better system for preventing the working poor and near-poor from getting anywhere, whether figuratively or literally.

Across the country, ridership is up, but funding is down, leading to service cuts and deferred maintenance and a downward spiral in transit system integrity. Although there could be big improvements with some measures that require only minimal capital investment — things like giving buses traffic signal priority and developing and collecting fares prior to boarding — even they require some funding. Federal contributions? Don’t hold your breath.

So with vital initiatives such as Greenlight Pinellas appearing on ballots next month, we have to count on voters to recognize not only the long-term benefits of an effective mass transit system for the entire region but its urgency for struggling individuals and families.

Plenty of people wish for a less car-dependent lifestyle, and practically everyone — college students, non-driving seniors, mall-rat teenagers — would benefit either directly or indirectly from efficient mass transit — for example, through less congested roadways, cleaner air and fewer traffic-related injuries.

But as Shetara Brown would tell you, for many low-wage workers and their families, reliable public transportation isn’t about adopting a lifestyle. It’s about having a lifeline.

Gail Gottlieb is an attorney from Brandon and a former candidate for Florida House District 59.