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Does Transit Connect Employers to Labor?

As the nation continues its anemic economic recovery, media outlets and researchers have begun looking at the employer side of the jobs equation. Widespread reports have covered the inability of many firms to fill their open vacancies, with some suggesting a skills mismatch and others citing lagging demand. Other research assesses how falling recruitment intensity may explain the unfilled openings.

But one missing explanation is the role of transportation in connecting jobs and people. Without physical access to a work site, even the most qualified individuals cannot fill a job opening.

Building on our year-long transit research, “Where the Jobs Are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit” examines how well the nation's transit systems connect employers to their metropolitan labor pools.

The results are a mixed bag.

On the positive side, transit agencies do a great job running service into employers' neighborhoods. Across the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas, an average of 75 percent of jobs are located in neighborhoods with transit service. For these 77.7 million jobs, transit can serve as the connective tissue between employer and employee.

However, transit fails to connect most employers with a majority of their metropolitan labor pool. Instead, the average employer can reach only 27 percent of the metropolitan labor pool via transit in 90 minutes. This leaves huge chunks of prospective employees out of reach, and complicates transit's ability to support the local labor market.

It would be easy to lay blame solely at the feet of our nation's transit agencies, but that ignores the complexity of the issue. Instead, these access levels reveal the significant costs borne by our metro areas' decades-long outward expansion. Based on past Brookings research, we know 45 percent of our jobs are now at least 10 miles from metros' central business districts. And only recently have we seen city population growth rates exceed their suburban counterparts.

Simply put, we did not build an environment conducive for transit operations.

But we know better results are possible. Many metropolitan areas display impressive performances, often flying in the face of conventional wisdom. Los Angeles, the archetypal home of the automobile and highway culture, scores the largest share of jobs within reach of transit service. Milwaukee, a major transit battleground, succeeds in connecting employers to nearly half of metropolitan workers. Las Vegas and its top-15 access ranking prove that transit can work within suburban development if an agency designs routes to match.

These metro areas and others provide a playbook of how to make transit work for employers. First, we need to continue to invest in transportation infrastructure, whether it is new rail lines in Washington or complimentary bike sharing in Chicago. Second, metro areas need to think regionally and collaboratively. Accessibility is about more than just transportation; accessibility is about a built environment where land use and transportation work in concert. Finally, we need to invest in data infrastructure to empower leaders with better decision-making tools. Smart decisions begin with smart analytics.

Addressing our nation's unemployment levels will take significant effort, and require actions beyond just skills and recruitment. It’s imperative officials remember the role public transportation can play in the process.