News & Politics

In Major Cities, African Americans Have to Put Up With Especially Long Commutes

Gentrification and poor bus service are just two of the reasons.

Photo Credit: ZDL / Shutterstock

Living in one of the largest cities in the world with one of the most extensive systems of public transportation doesn’t guarantee an easy time getting from point A to B. When it comes to navigating the system of buses, trains and sometimes ferries, poor and African American New Yorkers face disproportionate hardships in the ongoing battle to get where they need to be. But they’re not alone; the situation in New York reflects a national trend of longer commute times for African Americans and poor people of color in general.

Citing a 2013 report from the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York Times explained:

“The study found that 758,000 New York City residents now travel more than an hour each way to work, most of them to jobs that pay less than $35,000 per year. Black New Yorkers’ trips to work are 25 percent longer than whites, and Hispanics, 12 percent longer than whites, other research by the Pratt Center found. The city’s bus system — the backbone of mobility for many lower-income people, essential for getting to jobs outside Manhattan where streetcar lines were ripped up generations ago — is both the largest and the slowest in the country, the city comptroller reported this week.”

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The situation in New York mirrors that of Chicago, where black workers spend about 7 minutes more commuting each way than white low-wage workers, according to CityLab. It’s especially difficult for black women in Chicago, who “spent 80 minutes a week more getting to and from work than white women from the city's working poor.” Similarly, in Los Angeles, commute times are highest for residents in majority-Hispanic neighborhoods like South Gate and East L.A.

Though most New Yorkers are now commuting in-borough rather than out-of-borough, and even though millions of dollars are invested into improving signaling, updating technology and repairing damaged lines like those caused by Hurricane Sandy, the New York Times revealed that for decades now, a combination of factors has led to commutes being dragged out, while the system grows more and more expensive.

Even when major cities dedicate resources to repairing broken public transportation lines, these improvements and expansion of subway access can actually cause neighborhoods to become priced out for people originally living there.

Buses are one good example of racial inequity in urban commute times, as they are in especially bad shape in New York and are the only option for commuters living far from subway lines.

Jaqi Cohen, campaign coordinator for the Straphangers Campaign, said the data in the report was illuminating. “From an equity standpoint, bus service has really not gotten the attention that it needs," she said. "Seventy-five percent of bus riders are people of color, and I think 55 percent of bus commuters are immigrant born, so there’s a huge disparity in the types of service that New Yorkers are getting based on where they live, based on where they’re born, raised, and so on.”

The Pew Research Center approximated that “more than 40% of buses and 25% of rail transit around the U.S. are in marginal or poor condition.”

Part of the transportation problem in New York and other cities is that the routes have not been adjusted to account for shifting population locations due to increased gentrification throughout the city. Though much transit activism focuses on the need for adjusted subway systems, the fact that the bus routes are no longer serving the needs of commuters is also gaining attention. “I think as people are forced out of communities…they’re affected the most by poor access to transit,” Cohen said. “As people are forced farther and farther to the edges of New York city that’s where we tend to see the worse access to transit.”

The impact of the extended commute is at the intersection of racist housing systems that push people of color to live further from the places they work, and terrible public transportation systems that fail those who need them. As the 2013 Pratt Center Report argued, long commute times impact not just employment, but access to health care, community resources and education.

In general, throughout the country, the public transportation that is available is used much more by people of color in cities. Based on 2015 data, the Pew Research Center reported, “Among urban residents, 34% of blacks and 27% of Hispanics report taking public daily or weekly, compared with only 14% of whites. Foreign-born urban residents are more likely than urban dwellers born in the U.S. to regularly use public transportation (38% vs. 18%)."

Nowhere can that be seen more than in New York City, where Cohen argues the disrepair and inaccessibility are endemic of marginalized communities being ignored.

"From an equity perspective, accessibility is a huge issue that the entirety of New York City transit system faces. It's terrible."

Emily C. Bell is a news writer at AlterNet.