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Epic Commutes Face Those Caught In Public Transit Puzzle

It takes Chicago resident Sarah Hairston two hours to go 15 miles to get to her part-time job.
David Schaper
It takes Chicago resident Sarah Hairston two hours to go 15 miles to get to her part-time job.

It's a sign of the times: More people are commuting for more than an hour to get to work, and many of the longest commutes are at least partially on public transportation.

Take Sarah Hairston's commute from her apartment on Chicago's South Side to her part-time job at a shelter for homeless teens on the north side of town.

Hairston, a 25-year-old graduate student, begins her trek at 4 a.m. by walking to a nearby bus stop, in the hopes of catching a bus to the L train. But if Hairston misses the bus to that train or if the bus is late, she'll turn to plan B — walking a few more blocks to a different train station where she'll have to wait 20 to 30 minutes for the next train. Or she defaults to plan C: walking to a different bus stop to take her to yet another train line.

And generally, she does a whole lot of waiting. In fact, Hairston spends almost as much time waiting outside in Chicago's sometimes brutal weather as she does riding, all while navigating a complicated public transit puzzle. For Hairston, it's a two-hour commute to go 15 miles to work a four-hour shift at the shelter. If she could afford a car, she says the drive to the shelter would take her just 20 minutes.

Hairston has a second part-time job on weekends doing administrative work at a church. That commute is even longer, but she needs to live near her graduate school, where the rent is cheap and she takes evening classes, so it's just a short walk home at the end of the day.

What helps her get through it is knowing it's somewhat temporary and that it could be worse. "I know there are people who have to make multiple buses just to get to a train, to get another train, to get to another bus," she says.

She's part of a growing commuting trend.

"We're seeing more and more people fit into that category," says Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works nationally to promote sustainable communities. He says increasingly, there are fewer jobs available in or near the communities where lower-income workers tend to live. People who travel 90 minutes or longer one way are often called "stretch commuters."

"Too often the only jobs that may be available do require that stretch commute, and we're not spending anything on providing stretch commute services," he says.

Bernstein says bigger cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco have pretty substantial public transit systems that are accessible to most residents of the lowest-income communities.

But, says Bernstein, commuting patterns have changed over time.

"We've had 50-plus years of job movement out from the center to the edge. We're still managing our transit systems as if most of the jobs are located in the central city," he says.

And in many cities, such as Memphis and Atlanta, Bernstein says, the transit systems are far too inadequate. "We're really good as a country at figuring out how to move a container of freight around. It's called freight logistics. I think we need passenger logistics services here," he says.

The good news, Bernstein says, is that urban planners, elected officials and even employers themselves are beginning to recognize the insanity that many in the workforce face in getting to their jobs. He says they're taking a fresh look at how to better provide services.

"Car sharing and bike sharing and dedicated van pools, employers taking on direct responsibility to put extra subsidy into transit routes to get the frequency of service that they need — these things are happening all over the place," Bernstein says.

Still, Bernstein and other transportation policy experts say such changes aren't happening as fast as jobs are moving away from where many lower-income workers live and funding for public transportation continues to be scarce.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.