Mind the gap: transit-using communities of color face longer commutes than white Minnesotans

MinnPost file photo by Corey Anderson
Since black, Latino and Native American residents are more likely than whites to depend on transit, they pay the transit time penalty disproportionately.

Add one more gap that people of color in the Twin Cities region must overcome to make the promise of upward mobility a reality: the transit gap.

Emerging research is showing that the relationship between transit and being able to escape poverty is as significant — perhaps more so — as education, employment and health inequities between whites and racial minorities.

Building on that research, a group of Metro-region equity advocates used Census data to quantify what they called the transit time penalty. Comparing commute times between whites driving in single occupant vehicles and those dependent on transit, the report, “It’s About Time,” points out that the transit users devote more time to getting to work and less toward family time or other activities. And since black, Latino and Native American residents are more likely than whites to depend on transit, they pay the transit time penalty disproportionately.

“Transit isn’t just about getting on the bus and putting some quarters in slots, it’s about how a mode of transportation can help people get to work, get to school, improve their lives or frankly be a hindrance,” Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said at a Tuesday press event at the state capital.

The coalition — which includes NOC, Isaiah, TakeAction Minnesota and the Center for Popular Democracy — was lobbying for the DFL transportation plan, especially Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to let Metro counties increase the local sales tax for transit improvements from a quarter percent to 1 percent. That additional money would allow Metro Transit to implement its Service Improvement Plan 2015-2030. Part of the plan would address the region’s areas of concentrated poverty with more service, expanded options (including bus rapid transit) and improved amenities, such as better shelters and more security.

The impact of longer commutes

The report describes some things that have become well known with regard to Minnesota’s large racial disparities, and adds transit inequities to the list. Broken down by race, Asian and black transit riders in Minnesota lose three and half weeks more time commuting via transit than whites who commute by driving alone. For Latino commuters, the lost time is nearly four and a half weeks.

The report follows a New York Times analysis on the impact of transportation on poverty. Based on research by a team of Harvard professors on factors related to upward mobility, the Times concluded that “commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.

“The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community, said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the researchers on the study.”

Anthony Newby
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Anthony Newby, executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, speaking at Tuesday’s press conference at the State Capitol.

Transit commuting is even more onerous for those traveling from the cities to suburbs where service is less frequent, the report noted. Some suburbs that opt out of regional Metro Transit skew service toward taking residents from the suburbs to the downtowns, but not so much on the reverse commute. Harry Maddox, a NOC organizer who lives in South Minneapolis, said he spends two to three hours a day commuting and getting to meetings. But he said the longest trips are to see his daughter, who lives in St. Cloud. Between getting to and from the Northstar Line commuter train and the ride itself, the trip can take more than three hours each way.

“My daughter is No. 1, she’s No. 1 in my life. It shouldn’t take that long to go see her. It really shouldn’t,” Maddox said.

Convenience factor

Most of the region’s commuters use cars to get to work. That is true of racial minorities as well as whites, although fewer whites than racial minority residents use transit. And those who cannot afford the costs of a car don’t have the option. Rep. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, said she took the transit challenge issued by transit advocates earlier this year. She said she wasn’t able to get to and from the Legislature via transit for even one day.

“The white person with a car, you’re just not going to do it. It’s just not convenient,” she said. “It’s too much time. But then there’s others who have to do it so this is a very important point.”

The Minnesota study did not look specifically for gaps in transit service for routes serving predominantly white neighborhoods and those serving predominantly minority neighborhoods. But it did speak to some quality differences. Within Metro Transit service areas, the number and quality of heated shelters skewed toward more-affluent areas. That is something Metro Transit’s service improvement plan will try to remedy.

Quality of amenities between Metro and suburban lines varies widely. Lesley Anne Crosby said she finally gave up a massage therapy job in Eden Prairie because the commute was too difficult. “But when I got to Eden Prairie, the buses were fantastic,” she said. “It has Wi-Fi and a little plug to put my phone in.” Newby then turned to those behind him and asked “How many people have been on a bus in North Minneapolis with Wi-Fi and padded seat? Me neither.”

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 05/13/2015 - 11:50 am.

    Faulty logic

    “And since black, Latino and Native American residents are more likely than whites to depend on transit, they pay the transit time penalty disproportionately.”

    If one takes a look at travel times to work by race in the Twin Cities, this isn’t the case.

    The 2005 ACS broke down mean travel time by race and ethnicity. The only group with a longer mean travel time to work than non-Latino whites was Native Americans – by a mere 1.3 minutes. All other races had quicker average commutes than non-Latino whites. The overall range of mean commute times was less than 5 minutes.


  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 05/13/2015 - 01:31 pm.

    Logistic difficulties are now minority abuse?

    The recent Strib article picking up the same message from this report has a comment section that pretty much covers the incredible holes in this most recent attempt to elevate purported racial inequities of Metro transit. All should read that piece before commenting here, in order to minimize redundancy.

    Needless to say, all riders of the traditional bang and clank city buses suffer lengthy and jarring rides, regardless of income, ethnicity, age, physical challenge, etc. If the point of these two articles was to lobby
    for better inner city transit for all, we might all agree. Mpls/St. Paul has long had one of the more user hostile bus systems of most any modern city. Ask any helpless visitor. Can she go to a bus shelter and read maps that easily help her choose her best route to get anywhere? Not likely. Yes, we have many bus routes; however, they mainly lie over our original streetcar lines….planned and placed over 100 years ago, when we had no inner suburban, outer suburban or ex-urban rings!

    Both articles follow the suspicious themes of some report that seems less about transit efficiencies and more about minority deficiencies. Yes, we must upgrade both, but, the true issue is not a linear ethnic argument.

    The premise of these pieces appears to be that all logistic difficulties are now minority abuse. Nonsense, utter nonsense.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/14/2015 - 08:28 am.

    Couple things

    Well, there’s no doubt that our metro transit system is and has always been poor and could and should be improved in a variety of ways. The main problem with transit in this country is that in most areas republicans have been trying to kill transit in one way or another for decades. From Amtrak to buses they have always tried to cut budgets for transit any time they get a chance, and without proper funding and planning you just can’t have state of the transit systems. As a general rule, transit can/frequently does take longer than driving, the question is how much longer?

    Beyond that, I have a couple questions about the reliability of this research. The first is the census data itself. Rather than measuring actual transit times this research relies on subjective self reports and while that’s not completely unreliable, it might screw the data in certain ways.

    I remember back in the late 80’s early 90’s when the third ring suburban flight took off in a big way there was this amazing temporal phenomena, no matter how far out people moved they never had more than a 20 minute drive to work in the city! I’m not sure how reliable drivers self reports are, some people exaggerate their commute times while others minimize them. Meanwhile I think transit users probably do a better job of being aware of their actual commute times because they have to pay more attention to actual schedules. The over-all effect of this might be to exaggerate the difference between drive times and transit times.

    Nevertheless there’s no doubt that it takes longer to get from St. Louis Park to Downtown St. Paul by transit than by car, almost twice as long. But does that impact people of color more than others?

    My other problem with this article is the link between transit and poverty and the suggestion that long transit plays a major causal role in maintaining poverty. This is sloppy statistical thinking. Clearly you can expect a correlation between transit and poverty because many poor people don’t own cars, but correlation doesn’t equal causation. You can’t say that if we gave poor people cars they would rise out of poverty because they wouldn’t have to use transit anymore. The primary feature of poverty is… low income, and that low income drives all the other factors.

    There is one other feature of poverty in America that emerged back in the 90’s with Clinton’s welfare reform. You started seeing welfare recipients making these ridiculous commutes in a big way when moved to workfare instead of welfare because people HAD to take jobs regardless of distance in order to keep getting benefits. The commute is bad but again, the problem isn’t the commute per se, the problem is that people are spending three hours a day getting to poverty wage jobs… it’s the poverty wages that keep them in poverty, not the commute.

    Again, none of this means we shouldn’t make a better transit system, but arguments for better transit based on specious claims about OTHER issues may backfire.

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