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Reverse commuting can bring suburban money downtown.

Historically, cities have been centers of employment opportunity. However, while many white-collar employment opportunities exist in cities today, changes in the nation's economy during the last 20 years have reduced the number of low-skill urban jobs that pay a living wage.

The suburbs are now the growth area for most low-skill employment opporturnities--not only service jobs in retail businesses, but manufacturing jobs as well.

As the economy has changed, a gap has developed between the educational attainment of inner city residents and the education needed for nearby whitecollar jobs. Residents have become geographically isolated from the jobs they are qualified for and often lack transportation to get to where the jobs have gone. g

This "spatial mismatch" is increasingly standard in large metropolitan areas.

One solution to the problem of spatial mismatch is a reverse commute program. Reverse commute programs connect inner-city residents with suburban jobs, either by extending public transportation routes farther into the suburbs or by developing private van pools or ridesharing arrangements. Financing for these programs usually comes from some combination of rider fares, employer subsidies, government dollars, and grant funding.

Reverse commute programs can increase the effectiveness of local job training and placement programs. Many living wage blue collar jobs can be found outside city peripheries. However, these jobs cannot be accessed by most inner city residents in employment and training programs unless transportation assistance is provided. A 1993 survey conducted by the American Public Transit Association (APTA) of program operators from 56 transit systems and other organizations that operate or are planning reverse commute programs found five reverse commute programs that served job training programs and 19 linked to employment programs.

Reverse commute programs can benefit cities by helping import wages and retaining unemployed voters who may have been receiving public aid and who would have had to move to find jobs. The reverse commute program can be seen as a farsighted economic development strategy: a community with more wage-earners will attract more business.

John Plunkett,' founder and CEO of Suburban Job-Link Corp., a not-for-profit agency in Chicago which links people and jobs, estimates that Job-Link's reverse commute program brings about a quarter of a million dollars in wages from the suburbs to the west side of Chicago each week. Plunkerr finds that local leaders often prefer to focus solely on bringing jobs into the city. "We also support that goal, but we'll do it from a long-term approach, by creating wage-earning consumers who will attract businesses with their dollars," Plunkett responds.

Another factor prompting local governments to consider reverse commute programs is the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). The act doubles the mass transit budget and allows additional highway funds to be shifted to mass transit programs. The act favors using transportation funds to link various modes of transportation to serve new markets. ALso, ISTEA gives local government more power by vesting authority to make transportation decisions' m metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), which have a better sense of local transportation needs and characteristics.

Employers, too, have reasons for supporting and even helping subsidize reverse commute programs. The Clean Air Act of 1990 requires large employers to reduce the number of individual commutes. Employers are encouraged to facilitate car pooling, provide van service, or create disincentives such as parking fees.

APTA' s 1993 survey report examines characteristics of reverse commute programs and provides relevant information about local issues, operational needs and marketing strategies. The survey report also presents advice from the program operators on how to start new programs.

Characteristics of some successful reverse commute programs are described below,


Program operators responding to the APTA survey say that local government support is important to the success of reverse commute programs. Reverse commute programs are more likely to succeed when transportation providers, government leaders, agencies from different jurisdictions, and nonprofit and private sector players work together to craft a solution.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's (SEPTA) 200 Series program, which offers reverse commuting in Philadelphia, advises tying down a long-term private sector commitment and working to compromise with neighhorhood groups, if possible.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation reverse commute program suggests that new programs would do well to create a network of supporters and promoters in the local business community, as well as local government support.

Mobility Rather Than Transportation

Reverse commuting can occur in single occupant vehicles, vanpools or 40-foot fixed-route buses. A broader vision allows a program to define success not in numbers of riders but by the successful connection of workers to jobs. If a worker stops riding a reverse commute program's van but has joined a carpool, mobility has been achieved.

Solutions can be large-scale programs that expand a city's mass transit system, adjust the services it offers, or connect it to a suburban system--but they can also be small-scale, flexible and individualized, as with van programs and carpools. For example, the SEPTA 200 Series Routes extended bus routes to suburban areas where jobs were available, whereas Chicago's Suburban Job-Link Corp. takes commuters out to the suburbs in vans and buses. Job-Link is planning to introduce even more flexibility by coordinating carpools through a database. While most of APTA's survey respondents used fixed route buses to service their reverse commute programs, options included vanpools, shuttles (often from rail stations), rail transit and carpools.

Far-Sighted Funding Arrangements

Organizations APTA surveyed said funding subsidies are an important factor affecting a program's success. Some programs obtain grant funding. Employers and employees can also help defray the cost. Rider fares allow riders to avoid the "hand-out" stigma, and an increasing number of employers are helping subsidize reverse commute programs. Programs which focus on managing and coordinating ride-sharing arrangements also can reduce the significant cost of salaried drivers.

For more information on programs cited, contact Bernadette Ryan, 312/522-8700 at Suburban Job-Link Corp.; Charles Webb at SEPTA's 200 Series, 215/580-7974; or Dixon Nuber at Wisconsin Department of Transportation's reverse commute program in Madison 608/266-8508.

For a copy of APTA's survey results, contact Peggy Glenn, 202/898-4027, FAX 202/8984049.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on book on transportation issues; bringing inner-city residents to suburban jobs
Author:McGraw, Colleen
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jan 3, 1994
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