The other day I took our car to the shop and had to leave it all day. I ended up taking the bus home from the Honda dealership. What is a 10 minute car ride took me 2 hours and 23 minutes. As far as I can tell all the buses ran on time, but I had to change buses and the route was less-than-direct.
Reduced Labor Mobility
While riding, I considered how difficult it would be to look for or switch jobs if you relied on public transit. (You can read my posts here and here about how the government is working to prevent the poor from having easy access to transportation.) You would need to find a job that can be easily accessed via transit from your home. This rules out many areas because they are either 1) inaccessible or 2) too far. A 2 hour bus ride each way is unreasonable.
The other issue is uncertainty. You need to be able to show up regularly on time. It doesn’t look good if you are 30 minutes late to a job interview. Unfortunately, buses are frequently late or pass you by full. Because of these factors, I would guess lower-income labor mobility is lower in places with poor public transit systems.
If it is harder for workers to move between jobs, this should imply wages are lower too. Firms can pay less to some employees dependent on transit because it is harder for them to switch jobs. The competitive forces are reduced so some employees might not be paid the market wage. Of course, if most jobs are in a centralized area (i.e. downtown) this may not be a problem. But, in most of our cities jobs are becoming more spread out.
Having used public transit for nearly five years, I have come to recognize how critical it is for lower-income people. I know an elderly man from my bus stop who regularly takes the bus all over town to mow lawns and shovel snow. He also leaves at 5 am to ride over to the VA for an 8 am doctors appointment. His bus line (and mine) was recently cut. I’m not sure what he is doing now.
Get Government Out of the Way
Some might think I am advocating more public transit. I am not fundamentally opposed to state and local governments providing some public transit. However, out of control salaries for union drivers are what are killing Pittsburgh’s system. . Some drivers the paper has reported make over $100K plus benefits! Instead of dealing with this structural problem the system has cut service. The state had reduced its contribution too. The reality in many places is that more service expenditures are unlikely. We need a solution that costs less.
What I would really like to see is dramatic liberalization of the local transportation industry. The taxi companies and transit service make sure it is difficult and expensive to operate a transportation company. Local governments need to let individuals and small businesses provide transit services as they like. This is the major roadblock. I think you would be surprised at how many small-scale services pop up to meet the needs of the public. As I wrote a few days ago, this already happens illegally in Pittsburgh. Furthermore, most developing countries have free-wheeling transit services. It is the government that prevents it here.
If you want to really help the poor in your area, organize your neighbors to demand the county and city liberalize the transit industry in your area. Frame it as a moral issue of helping the poor and emphasize it will cost the government less. This is a win-win that I’d like to see communities taking advantage of in these belt-tightening times.