With Workers in Cities, Jobs in Suburbs, Commuting Is Now a Two-Way Street

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

COMMUTERS who ride trains to and from their central-city workplaces may have noticed something new in recent years. Growing numbers of people are waiting at the end of the line to ride those trains in opposite directions as each work day starts and finishes.

Those people are part of a long-building phenomenon transit experts call ``reverse commuting.'' More to the point, they're part of a continuing social and economic evolution that's sprouting blue-collar jobs in the suburbs, or even farther out, and stranding many of the workers who might fill them in the inner cities.

``Traditionally, public-transit routes were always in from the suburbs to the cities where the jobs were, or they transported people within the cities,'' says Charles Bishop Jr., director of public relations for the Washington-based American Public Transit Association. Now, he says, ``the greatest job growth is in suburban or exurban areas, but the greatest need for jobs lies within the cities.''

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The challenge facing transportation planners, Mr. Bishop continues, is how to link this supply with the demand. A broader challenge facing society as a whole, according to Mark Hughes, vice president of Public/Private Ventures, a policy research firm in Philadelphia, is whether to adopt reverse commuting as an antipoverty strategy.

Low-income city dwellers need ways ``to access jobs that are over the horizon in the suburbs,'' Mr. Hughes says. In his view, this ``mobility strategy'' is a workable option, given the many difficulties of applying either of two other strategies: helping poor people, typically black or Hispanic, move to the suburbs or attracting employers back into the cities.

But expanding reverse commuting is not easy. While city work sites are often clustered around financial centers, those in the suburbs are often distant from public-transportation terminals.

A number of bills before Congress would fund reverse-commuting demonstration projects. Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey, for example, has proposed a Mobility for Work Act directed at metropolitan areas where at least 75 percent of job growth over the past 10 years has occurred outside the central city.

Meanwhile, a number of cities have moved ahead on their own.

In Chicago, both private and public agencies are trying to address reverse commuters' needs. The Pace Suburban Bus Division of Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority runs fixed-route bus services, dial-a-ride vehicles, and van pools in a six-county area surrounding the city. It has played a major role, for example, in continuing to serve Sears, Roebuck & Company employees when that giant business moved its headquarters from downtown Chicago to the suburbs.

Another Chicago-area agency getting workers to outlying jobs is Suburban Job-Link Corporation, a private nonprofit organization based in the city's South End. Job-Link has existed since the mid-1970s, but recent years have seen a surge in demand, according to Bernadette Ryan, vice president of marketing.

The agency operates eight buses each work day on three shifts. It not only gets people to work sites, but also manages a temporary-employment service that locates jobs for riders in the O'Hare International Airport area, a magnet for new light industries.

Another Midwestern city, St. Louis, is developing a regional economic-development plan that includes giving inner-city residents the means to reach outlying jobs. A key to this, says Blair Forlaw, an official with the East-West Gateway Council, a regional planning agency, is more flexible use of existing transport systems.

Bus ridership in St. Louis is the lowest it has been since the early 1960s, Ms. Forlaw says. Much needs to be done to make sure routes are serving current needs. She also sees the possibility of expanding use of other types of vehicles, such as vans that shuttle the elderly during the day. They might shift to commuter service mornings and evenings, she says.

Illustrating how transportation becomes intertwined with other issues, Forlaw mentions one group of public-housing residents who were offered work in a suburban nursing home but found they'd have to leave at 5:30 a.m. They wondered how to arrange child care at that hour. Security at darkened bus stops was another issue. ``We realize there's a need for a whole package of services,'' she says.

In some cities, by contrast, regional transportation planning may work against people who travel outward to work. Central Los Angeles has only 3 percent of the jobs in its vast metropolitan area, but the city has nonetheless invested in a light-rail system that primarily serves the downtown, says Jim Moore, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Southern California.

To help pay for that project, bus service has been curtailed and fares have been hiked, he says, thus hurting the working poor who most need bus service. The best way to serve low-income reverse commuters, Mr. Moore says, is to introduce private competition into the bus system, with government vouchers offsetting higher fares if necessary.

That is prohibited, however, by local regulations that bar private bus lines, Moore says.

The overriding need is to fit reverse commuting into a broader picture of urban renewal, according to Gordon Linton, head of the Federal Transit Administration in Washington. ``Reverse commuting, in essence, is a short-term fix for bad public policy,'' says Mr. Linton, who argues that past land-use and taxation decisions led to suburban vigor and inner-city decline. He calls for comprehensive urban planning that embraces adequate transportation in all directions while maintaining a commitment to building more livable central cities.

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