“Jobs, jobs, jobs!” is the economic mantra of politicians everywhere. However, an economic development strategy too often overlooked is connecting people to jobs that already exist. This mismatch between residents and job opportunities is a challenge that communities across Michigan face; however, it is one that is uniquely challenging in Detroit. The combination of job sprawl and inadequate public transportation puts Detroiters at a unique disadvantage for job options and economic opportunity.
We took a look at the Economic Growth Section of the Detroit Future City (DFC) Framework to better understand this challenge and looked for ways that transportation policy reform could mitigate this problem. The Framework, which “articulates a shared vision for Detroit’s future, and recommends specific actions for reaching that future,” highlights current conditions and suggests strategies for economic growth and transportation, among other topics. The Economic Growth section provides some important revelations about the current disconnection between the two:
What do these stats tell us?
- There aren’t many jobs in Detroit.
- Most of the jobs that do exist in Detroit aren’t employing Detroiters.
- Detroiters must travel long distances to get to and from their jobs which are primarily in the suburbs.
- A staggering number of Detroiters do not have access to a private vehicle.
- Poverty rates are high, even for those with post-secondary education.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal stated that only 20% of Detroiters can reach their jobs via public transit in less than 90 minutes (that’s assuming the bus is running on time). And, last year, a Brookings Institution study revealed that Detroit is ranked number one among the top 100 largest metropolitan regions for job sprawl.
The lack of reliable public transportation in combination with the disparate employment opportunities in Metro Detroit creates a major barrier for Detroiters to find and retain well-paying and sustainable jobs, generating a serious hurdle to economic mobility.
Further, long commute times and unreliable transit can add several unpaid hours to the work day, increasing childcare costs and decreasing quality of life.
Improved public transportation is the most direct and immediate solution to this problem. The DFC Framework provides recommendations to bring more jobs and firms to the City; however, this requires long-term, gradual planning and policy changes, and Detroiters simply cannot wait. The DFC Implementation Office included transportation systems reform on its list of Framework Implementation Priorities for 2014-2015, although direct steps toward that reform are unclear.
Currently, many Trans4M members and other transit advocates are urging County Commissioners in Southeast Michigan to place an increased transit millage on the August 2014 ballot to improve transit service from the SMART Bus System. In Washtenaw County, a May 2014 ballot initiative to increase the transit millage could expand service area and hours across the county. These millage increases would provide transportation improvements, and at the same time, should be considered economic development initiatives.
There is a clear nexus between gainful employment and adequate transportation. Providing transportation options needs to be an integral part of our strategy to connect people to jobs, lower unemployment levels and increase opportunities for economic mobility. Jobs are key to moving Detroit and Michigan forward, and transportation will help get us there.
Written by Liz Treutel, Trans4M Fellow