One of the things that attracted me to the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University is its focus on “bread and butter” issues. As a new faculty affiliate of the center, I now help spotlight and evaluate some of these issues. Take the issue of getting to and from work, for example. What could be more universally “bread and butter” than helping people to get to and from work so that they might be self-reliant, productive members of their household, community, city, state, and nation? I believe that few of us would want to undermine such core American values as a strong work ethic, self-reliance, productivity, ingenuity, and self-respect. But I fear that these values will be undermined if we fail, as a nation, to support improvements in public transportation, and those who depend most upon it to get to and from work, school, and other places.
Cities across the nation are grappling with rising oil prices, record-high inflation, staggering home foreclosure rates, and declining revenue for public services, such as local and regional bus transportation. This includes the city of Youngstown, Ohio. In November, the Western Reserve Transit Authority will ask people in Youngstown and surrounding communities to approve a 0.25 percent county sales tax that would help finance restoration and improvement in the region’s bus service. This is the second time that this proposal has been presented for voter approval. Fifty-six percent of area voters rejected the proposal in March 2008.
Here are a few research findings that people in Youngstown and surrounding communities (and people in your town) might consider before casting a vote on public transportation funding:
- A 2007 study by the Oil Price Information Service found that lower-income Americans spent about eight times more of their disposable income on gasoline than wealthier Americans did.
- One-third of public transit riders in year 2000 had yearly household incomes below the poverty level for a family of four. Most did not own cars, so public transportation usewas a necessity for them. Stated differently, the availability of public transportation, particularly bus transportation, is vital for people with limited income.
- About two-thirds of all public transportation passengers take public transportation to get to and from work or school, according to the Federal Transit Authority.
- Low-income women are more likely than are low-income men to require public transportation. And among women, Latina and low-income African American women are highly dependent on public transportation. Research suggests that, without access to public transportation, low-income African American women would have few, if any, means of getting to and fromjobs in retailing, personal services, and childcare, where many are employed. Walking to work is less of an option for the women because of the shortage of jobs in low-income, African American urban communities.
Recent poll results suggest that the current economic recession has begun to solidify public resistance against higher taxes for any purpose. (As an example, see the on-line comments from a July 2008 poll of Ohioans regarding higher taxes for improvements in bus service in Youngstown, Warren, and Columbiana, Ohio.) This “anti-tax sentiment” is making it difficult to mobilize massive public support for tax levies that would support improvements in public transportation in San Diego, Chicago, Youngstown, New York, and other places.
Do improvements in public transportation benefit even those who can afford their own vehicles and who, as a result, do not use public transportation? Should the issue of funding public transportation improvements matter even to those who, on the surface, appear not to be affected by the condition of public transportation in America (such as some upper-middle income suburban residents who commute in private vehicles)? Mounting evidence in scholarly journals, trade magazines, and the popular press suggest that the answer to these questions is “yes.”
Research finds that communities that invest in public transportation realize enhanced social economic development and prosperity. For example, a study by the American Public Transportation Association estimates that for every $1.00 invested in public transportation, there is a $3.00 increase in business sales. Communities that invest in public transportation are reported to attract more businesses, more visitors, and more shoppers. Property values tend to be higher in communities with good public transportation systems.
Absenteeism in the workplace and at school decreases when people who cannot afford private vehicles have reliable public transportation to get them to and from work and school. This decrease in absenteeism translates into higher productivity within the workplace, which potentially benefits everyone in a community, city, and region.
More business sales, more businesses, more visitors, more shoppers, higher property values, and increased productivity. Each of these benefits is an additional compelling reason for all to be concerned about the condition of public transportation in America, in my view. I submit that an investment in public transportation is an investment in a more promising future for people across the social-class spectrum, and particularly for members of the working class and the poor.