And I Thought Our Transit System Was Good

Sandra Folzer, Weavers Way Environment Committee

I have always been a fan of public transportation because it saves energy and reduces pollution. But I didn’t stop to consider how mass transit in our area does not serve everyone equally. 

I am blessed to have access to decent public transportation. When I worked, I could easily take the train to my teaching job at Community College of Philadelphia. Some of my students were not so lucky. I recall mothers describing how they had to rise as early as 4 a.m. to get their children ready for day care or school. They would then have to take several buses to drop their children off before taking still another bus to come to class. Sometimes the weather was cold, snowy, windy or hot. Sometimes the bus didn’t come. And, of course, they would have to make the whole trip in reverse at the end of the day. (My students sacrificed so much to get an education!)

I have always been a fan of public transportation because it saves energy and reduces pollution. I didn’t stop to consider how mass transit here does not serve everyone equally. 

Recently I attended a Roundtable on Transportation Equity for the 21st Century held at the SEPTA offices. One of the things I learned was that Philadelphia has the highest rate of poverty of large American cities and is also the fourth-worst city in the nation in terms of travel time for workers. These two things are not unrelated.

John Dodds, executive director of Philadelphia Unemployment Project, described commuting time as the strongest factor in escaping poverty. He referred to a study at Harvard by Raj Chetty, who found that the best chance for someone to move from the bottom 5% in income to the top 5% is to live in a city with the best transportation, like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Seattle.

Philadelphia’s public transportation system developed when most jobs were in the center of the city, with trains running from the suburbs to Center City. This was fine as recently as 1970, when 50% of jobs were in the city; the figure had dropped to 25% in 2013. Meanwhile, according to the Brookings Institute, 64% of jobs in our region are over 10 miles from Center City, and only 24% are accessible in less than 90 minutes by mass transit. In addition, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, 42% of jobs in Bucks County are not accessible by public transportation; 33% in Montgomery County; 29% in Chester County; and 14% in Delaware. These jobs cannot be reached by SEPTA, regardless of the how many buses you might take. 

We’re not the only city that is transportation-challenged. Rolf Pendall from the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute described a man in Detroit who had to leave his house at 10 a.m. for a 2-10 p.m. shift. Then, at the end of the night, he had to walk home because public transportation did not run that late. Each day he walked 23 miles to keep his job! The good news is that a car dealer heard of his plight and gave him a car and paid his insurance for several years. Most people are not so lucky.

Driving is one solution, but 36% of Philadelphia residents do not have cars; in North and West Philadelphia, the percentage reaches 50%. Mt. Airy State Sen. Art Haywood pointed out that minimum car insurance in Philadelphia averages $815 a year. That’s 18% of a minimum-wage salary. 

In response to this need, Philadelphia began the Commuter Options Program. The city currently has 15 vehicles for workers to get to their jobs. Groups of four to seven commuters car-pool from home or near home to work; one person, the driver, keeps the car, and the Philadelphia Unemployment Project pays for the insurance, maintenance and gas. The city hopes to increase this fleet to 60 cars this year. (For information about applying, call 215-557-0822.) In comparison, Seattle has over 1,500 minivans available for low-income car-pooling. 

When you think about environmental racism or economic inequality, you may not think about the role public transportation plays. I was under the assumption that Philadelphia had good public transportation. “Good” for whom?