In Her Words: Transportation Barriers

Katrice Brooks is a student at our Grantee Partner SOME’s Center for Employment Training (CET). Below, Katrice writes about her struggles with transportation and how her long, expensive commute affects her life and prospects for the future.

People opt to use public transportation for a variety of reasons: some to save on the cost of fuel and car maintenance, others to get back the time that they were losing driving.  Despite the benefits of driving enjoyed by few, some have no choice in the matter.

As a single mother and full time student, when I think of public transportation one word comes to mind: bittersweet. I am required to get up before the sun has risen every day of the week to take my daughter to daycare and to be at school before 8:30am.  My daughter, Lauren, is 20 months old, and because it is usually  so early in the morning, I have to carry her in one arm with my school books in the other because she is usually still asleep.  Traffic jams are very common during rush hours, meaning even more time on the bus, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and less time spent where I really want to be. I spend most Katrice-Quote-july-enewsof my time on public transportation, catching the eight buses a day I need to make it to where I need to be on time.  In this modern society, this is what I have to do to access my education, jobs, events and social network.

This commute affects the opportunities I would like to take advantages of to provide a better life for my daughter and me.  I am currently without a car, and the required fare needed to ride public transportation interferes with my family’s health, housing, medical bills, even food.  I am not willing to limit my daughter’s education quality due to transportation restrictions or be forced to change my preferred job options because of difficulty accessing affordable transportation choices. I cannot begin to mention the drop in my social activities caused by inadequate transportation. I’ve become isolated and miss normal social interactions. My daughter, Lauren’s, face is the reason I smile.  Every moment my daughter rises and opens her eyes, I want to be there for her.  With challenges like daycare, long daily commutes, feeding and preparing Lauren for bed, she’s too tired to do anything else, so I sing her favorite songs and off she goes to sleep preparing her little body for the next day ahead. Then I begin the load of work that has to be done before returning to class the next day.

I have decided to make a change in our lives.  With all the time we spend on public transportation, I don’t want to have to worry myself with a pick-pocket, or an irate and noisy commuter. Imagine how wearisome it can be when someone beside you is drunk, and you have to keep an eye on them the entire commute, all the while praying that they won’t harm your baby girl.   The SOME Center for Employment Training has been extremely helpful by providing me transportation assistance in the form of a smart trip card, but with the kind of commute I have on a daily basis it is nowhere near the amount I need to make ends meet.   Public transportation is an importation part of my life, but I am writing this essay to speak about the problems with public transportation, not only for myself, but also for other single mothers and passengers.

Transportation: Vital for Women’s Economic Security

Safe, efficient and affordable transportation is vital for women’s economic security. It ensures self-sufficiency by enabling timely access to employment and essential services –like grocery stores, child care centers and medical care –and allowing women to complete training and education programs.

Finding affordable housing for a working family, particularly in our region, increasingly requires long commutes and high transportation costs. With the dispersion of jobs, services and other opportunities, it is not surprising that workers are spending more and more time commuting than ever before. Low-income housing, in underserved urban neighborhoods as well as in suburban areas, is located far from employment centers or disconnected from public transportation routes, preventing workers from getting to their destinations conveniently, efficiently and on time. In addition, urban revitalization projects in the capital region have brought an influx of affluent newcomers, usually displacing low-income residents to poorer neighborhoods that are further away and that lack public transportation infrastructure; not only making commutes longer, but also requiring more transfers and circuitous routing.

Many of the women participating in programs run by our Grantee Partners have reported that lack of reliable transportation is one of the most pervasive barriers to remaining employed or completing job training. A number of research studies underscore this experience. Findings suggest that the longer the commute, the less likely someone is to be employed, and they agree that lack of access to transportation is a major obstacle for workforce development.

Time spent commuting deserves attention from policymakers and grantmakers. Given the reasonable bandwidth of most people, long and complicated commutes are particularly expensive for those who have them, and can affect a program’s intake rates. Long commutes take away personal time that can’t be spent working, on education, running errands, or simply enjoying time with family or taking care of children. In 2012, women’s average commute time in the Washington Region was 32 minutes. In the same year, more than a quarter of female workers (27 percent) had commutes of 40 minutes each way and about 3 out of  100 female workers had “extreme commutes” of at least 90 minutes per trip, according to the American Community Survey.

Transportation July e-news(10)

Commuting costs

In addition to consuming time, commuting is also expensive in terms of dollars and cents. Transportation costs rose faster than income during the 2000s, increasing the burden these costs placed on already stretched budgets. For the working poor – those earning less than twice the federal poverty measure–these costs consume a larger portion of their earnings.  In the Washington metropolitan area the cost-burden of commuting for this population is among the highest in the country, greater than the national median, and working poor households spend nearly three times more than other households, in relative terms. According to national data, transportation is the second largest expense for households: jointly with housing it accounts for more than one-half of all household spending.

What we are doing

Long and costly commutes discourage employment, leave workers with little to no time to spend with their families or to master the very skills needed for employment, and also leave them with fewer resources to accumulate savings and assets. Considering access to transportation is fundamental when The Women’s Foundation invests in programs working to improve the economic security of low-income women. We support efforts to link workforce development programs with transportation stipends, to ensure commuting to classes and meetings does not place an additional burden on or become a disincentive to women that would benefit from participating in our Grantee Partners’ programs. SOME, Year Up, and Goodwill are some of the many Grantee Partners providing some sort of transportation assistance as part of their education and training programs. This kind of assistance has proven to be a valuable approach in bridging the gap to meet low-income women’s needs, however, much more needs to be done to ensure transportation is not only accessible and affordable, but also safe and efficient. Considering transportation is crucial when developing policy recommendations and designing programs to lift women out of poverty so women can truly draw on and benefit from those initiatives.

Walk in Their Shoes

Nicky Goren, president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation, recently participated in “Walk in Their Shoes,” an event organized by Vehicles for Change, a Women’s Foundation Grantee Partner.  The event highlighted the importance of reliable transportation for families in the DC metro area. Nicky and Fabian Rosado, a Vehicles for Change board member, joined Renee Scarlet on her morning commute. Renee shared with them how long and difficult the commute from home to work was before she purchased an affordable van from Vehicles for Change.  Here are the highlights from their journey:

The Daily Rundown — The Latest News Affecting Women & Girls in Our Region

Metro_PhotoIn today’s rundown: Metro riders could get a break from fare increases.  |  The D.C. Council proposes restoring cuts to adult-education programs.  |  Doctors and attorneys form a partnership to overcome challenges that threaten the care of patients.

— Metro riders preparing for another fare increase could get a break.  A group of U.S. Senators has introduced a bill that would give $2 billion to transit agencies around the country.  The money would be used to reduce fares and restore service cuts.  Click here for details.

— The D.C. Council has proposed an increase in funds that would restore cuts to adult-education programs and increase money to charter schools.  Click here for more.

— Doctors and attorneys in D.C. are working together in an attempt to overcome legal and social challenges that threaten the care of patients.  Medical professionals at Children’s National Medical Center refer patients to the Children’s Law Center.  Most of their patients are low-income children, predominantly African American and covered by Medicaid.  Click here to read about specific cases.

The Daily Rundown — The Latest News Affecting Women & Girls in Our Region

Metro_Access_van_Rfc1394In today’s rundown: The shared-ride transit service for elderly and disabled residents could see cutbacks in service and a rate increase.  |  The metro region has been named the fittest in the country.  |  A condom shortage at nonprofits battling HIV and AIDS is being blamed on a city paperwork issue.

— Metro is planning to scale back its service for elderly and disabled people, according to the Washington Post.  MetroAccess, the shared-ride service for people who can’t use standard bus or subway service, will also see tougher eligibility requirements and a possible rate increase.  Metro is facing a $189 million budget gap.  Click here for more.

— The D.C. metro area has been named the fittest in the country by the American College of Sports Medicine’s American Fitness Index.  According to the index 90.2 percent of residents have health insurance and the region has below average rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Click here to see what else contributed to the rankings.

— Some D.C. nonprofits have been running low on condoms because of “billing issues.”  Advocates say the city — which provides the condoms — has failed to pay a supplier on time.  But the health department said it’s a paperwork issue that will be resolved within days.  Click here for more.

Photo credit: Rfc1394 via Creative Commons

The Daily Rundown — The Latest News Affecting Women & Girls in Our Region

SaveOurSafetyNet RallyIn today’s rundown: D.C. Council members wear red capes and support progressive changes to the budget.  |  D.C.’s streetcars could be free in some parts of the city.  |  Local home prices could continue to decline through next year.

— At a rally at city hall yesterday, members of the D.C. Council put on red capes and joined Save Our Safety Net and the Fair Budget Coalition to declare their support for proposed progressive solutions to the District’s budget issues.  Click here to read more about the council members who participated and to learn about the budget proposals.

— The streetcars coming to the District in the next two years may be free for riders in some parts of town.  The D.C. Department of Transportation says riders may be able to hop on and off the trolleys for free in some areas of the city.  The city has already started laying the tracks for the street cars in Anacostia and on H Street in Northeast D.C.  Click here for more.

— Despite a recent increase in home sales and prices, the Washington metropolitan area is still at risk for drops in home prices through the end of 2011, according to a new report from a mortgage insurance company.  Click here for details.

Photo credit: Save Our Safety Net

Transportation: Missing Connections

Cars on HwyThe Obama Administration’s Middle Class Task Force released its first annual report last week.  Unfortunately, it missed an opportunity to address the issue of car ownership for middle class families – and for low-income families aspiring to become middle class.



The report contains a set of hypothetical budgets for two-parent families in the 25th, 50th and 75th  percentiles in income.  For a look at these hypothetical budgets, click here and see Figure 6.  All of these budgets show a higher percentage of the family budget devoted to cars than to medical expenses or saving for college. 

In fact, for two-parent families at the 25th and 50th percentiles, car expenses appear to be higher than any category except housing and an “other expenses” category that includes the cost of necessities such as food, clothing and utilities.  The percentage for car ownership for households at the 25th percentile was especially high.

Similar hypothetical budgets for low-income, single-parent families (mostly headed by women) by the U.S. Department of Commerce (click here to see these budgets) show the same results.  The costs of car ownership for these families outpace every other category except housing and other necessities.

Unfortunately, the Middle Class Task Force’s report did not offer any solutions to this transportation challenge.  Yet we know that for low-income (and minority) households, car ownership is positively correlated with improved access to jobs, higher household income and more weeks worked per year.  For example,  nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of participants in Vehicles for Change, a Grantee Partner of The Women’s Foundation, obtained a better job within six to 12 months of owning their car, and participants enjoyed an average increase in salary of more than $4,500.

While health care, college savings and other pressing expenses receive – and deserve – attention from media and policy makers, these figures show a real need to address the needs of working families for cars.

Let’s hope we can get the task force to look more closely at these issues in the future. If you want to encourage them to do so, you can leave a comment on their website at:

John Van Alst is an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, Inc., in Boston

How about Cars for People Who Need Them But Can't Afford Them Day?

Today is Car Free Day, an international event celebrated every September 22nd that encourages people to leave their car at home.  Our region signed on last year and is participating again this year.

Car Free Day is intended to highlight transit, bicycling, walking and all alternative modes of transportation and take cars off the road so people can think about what their region, city or neighborhood might be like with fewer cars.

I want to propose a different type of car day: Cars for People Who Need Them but Can’t Afford to Buy, Insure or Maintain Them Day.

I know, I know – it’s not as catchy.

It’s not that I’m opposed to Car Free Day. 

I celebrate it nearly every day because I don’t own a car.  I am a big fan of public transportation (I commute by bus) and walking.  But I live and work in parts of town with rich public transportation options.

The frustrating truth is that many low-income residents in our region – especially low-income, women-headed families East of the River and in Prince George’s County – actually need more access to private transportation to be able to work and take care of their families.

According to Census data, nearly half (48%) of all non-elderly poor in the District lived in households without a car.  They participate in Car Free Day every day but not all willingly.

Car ownership programs for low-income families and individuals have demonstrated their effectiveness by producing significant income and asset gains for participants. Programs in our region, like Vehicles for Change, and national programs like Ways to Work and its local partners Northern Virginia Family Service (a Grantee Partner of The Women’s Foundation) and Family Matters of Greater Washington need and deserve support.

I hope we can all agree that our region’s transportation challenges call for multifaceted solutions beyond just “more people should take public transportation.”

Gwen Rubinstein is a Program Officer at The Women’s Foundation.