Reverse commute is a long haul on public transit

Andre Davis waits at the bus stop near where he lives in Austin.  He has to wake up at 4:00 a.m. most days in order to make a two-hour commute to the suburbs.  “There is no work here [in Austin],” Davis said.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Andre Davis waits at the bus stop near where he lives in Austin. He has to wake up at 4:00 a.m. most days in order to make a two-hour commute to the suburbs. “There is no work here [in Austin],” Davis said.

Andre Davis’ commute to work begins with a Google search.

As a retail merchandiser, the Austin resident sets up display cases for Mariano’s grocery chains, work that often takes him to the suburbs. But before Davis can board a train or hop a bus, he checks Google maps to see if public transportation can get him to work.

“Sometimes it just is hectic trying to get out there,” said Davis, 32, who doesn’t have a car and relies on public transit to travel from Chicago’s West Side to the suburbs.  “Sometimes I have to call off because the buses don’t even run to some of these locations or I have to ask ahead of time to send me somewhere that’s closer to public transportation. I am not trying to be stranded anywhere.”

In March, he was nearly stranded in Westmont in DuPage County. Davis caught a CTA bus to the Metra station in Cicero. From there, he made it to Westmont. But once in Westmont, there wasn’t a Pace bus that could get him to work by his start time of 7 a.m.  One of his managers had to pick him up at the Metra station.

Davis’ commute isn’t unusual.  More low-income workers are making the reverse trek outside the city for retail and manufacturing jobs in suburban Cook and surrounding collar counties. What experts call “job sprawl” and “spatial mismatch” — the disconnection between where people live and where they work – is changing the commute for some residents. Spatial mismatch disproportionately affects African-Americans in metropolitan areas with high poverty rates and high levels of segregation.

In Chicago, the impact of the mismatch may be felt the hardest in neighborhoods on the West and South sides, which have among the highest unemployment rates in the city.  Black workers have seen modest-paying, manual labor jobs quickly disappear from their communities, leaving them few options but to commute to far-flung suburban locales to earn a living.

“We know people need an income,” said Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, director of research and evaluation for the Chicago Urban League, which released a report earlier this year that examined segregation in housing and transportation. “We know we need to ensure that they have access to transit or have good transportation systems in place because they are going to leave their communities to get employment until we really reinvest in these communities.”

RELATED:

The first story in this series focused on post-recession unemployment on the South and West sides. 

Manufacturing was historically concentrated in Chicago and near communities of color. But between 2001 and 2015, the South and West sides lost 45 percent of these jobs, significantly outpacing regional and national trends, according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

DuPage County shed 25 percent of manufacturing jobs during the same time period, while Will County increased by 1 percent. Since the recession ended, Will has maintained more manufacturing jobs than Chicago’s South Side.

A similar pattern is playing out in the transportation and warehousing sector. Since 2001, Chicago has lost more than 13,000 such jobs while suburban Cook County has seen virtually no change, and collar counties have added nearly 10,000 jobs.

Many of these jobs are located in areas that are more than a half-mile or quarter-mile from high-quality rail or bus service, exacerbating the challenge of getting to work for people like Davis who depend on public transportation. These so-called “transit deserts” include the employment hubs along the Interstate 90 corridor near O’Hare, Interstate 88 near Aurora, Interstate 94 corridor and the Lake-Cook road on the border of Cook and Lake counties.

Despite the employment patterns, Chicago’s regional public transportation system is not set up to handle the reverse commute for people who depend on transit, experts say. Like many regional transit systems, Metra, which serves Cook and the surrounding five-county area, rests on a “spoke and hub” model that shuttles people to and from a central business district during peak morning and evening rush hours.

“I think a lot of people recognize the fact that our transit service is not really designed for people to get to the suburbs,” said Yonah Freemark, project manager at Metropolitan Planning Council, a nonprofit planning and development agency.  “The results are people are not able to access jobs, and that increases the level of poverty for people, reduces their access to opportunity and employment.”

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Eric Drane commutes from the Roseland neighborhood on the South Side to Romeoville in the southwest suburbs for his job as a forklift operator.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Eric Drane commutes from the Roseland neighborhood on the South Side to Romeoville in the southwest suburbs for his job as a forklift operator.

Pockets of Will County near Joliet and Romeoville have become the warehouse hubs of the Midwest and the country because major rail lines converge there, said Tim Bell of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, an advocacy group for temp and low-wage workers.

“So a pretty significant number of workers go out of Chicago to work in those warehouses,” said Bell, organizing director for the collaborative. “It’s a long haul.”

Roseland resident Eric Drane is familiar with that long haul. Drane, 39, commutes 40 miles to a Romeoville electronics distribution warehouse where he drives a forklift. Unlike Davis, who depends on public transportation, Drane, a married father of four, can at least drive to work. But he says he’d rather take public transit – if it was available.

“It’s murder on your car going from here, putting 30 to 40 miles every day on an older vehicle,” said Drane, who drives a 1998 Buick that has 200,000 miles on it.  “I’m like one car breakdown from not having a job myself.”

Taking public transit, he said, would reduce his stress about his ability to get to work. It also would allow him to convert his nearly four hours a day on the road into overtime.

To get to work by 7 a.m., Drane leaves home at 5 am. He picks up a co-worker “in order to make the gas work.”  He winds down side streets to avoid traffic, before picking up I-55 to Romeoville. That’s 80 minutes in all.

Drane takes the toll road home, which he said is no better.

“[The commute] takes a toll,” said Drane, who earns $11.50 an hour. “But it’s something I know I got to do. I got to make a living.”

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An underground transportation system of van pools has developed to ferry workers to places that aren’t accessible by Metra or Pace, the regional bus system.  In some cases, the van services work in tandem with the temp agencies that recruit workers for suburban warehouses.

But there’s a caveat, Bell said. The rides can be one-way trips. To meet their contractual obligation to supply workers, some temp agencies only provide transportation to job sites, but not back to the city, he said. Workers are left to get back to the city on their own, he added, some walking miles to the nearest Metra station or bus stop.

“Pace is set up to go to commuter centers like Metra and commercial centers like the Woodfield Mall,” Bell said.  “There is not a whole lot of lines servicing industrial or warehouse parks.”

At the end of his first day at a Bedford Park factory, Barry Rose, 51, expected the temp agency to arrange to pick him up. After all, it made sure he was dropped off at the factory.

“When I get off work, it wasn’t no van. I was asking people ‘Where’s the van?’ And people were like ‘You got to get home the best way you can,’” said Rose, of the incident two years ago. “They didn’t even tell us they weren’t coming back. Your feet already tired from standing up for 12 hours, and then you have to walk another hour to get a CTA bus to get home.”

The hour-long walk from the plant on 73rd Street and Mason Avenue, where he worked as a material handler and packer, was just the beginning of his commute home. He had to walk from there to Cicero Avenue, where he caught a CTA bus to the Orange Line. Then he would take the Red Line and a Pace bus home to suburban South Holland, where he lived at the time.

With few prospects because of a 12-year prison sentence for aggravated battery, Rose stayed on the job. He worked at the Bedford Park factory for nine months before he was transferred to a Bridgeview factory. His commute then mushroomed to four hours. After a month, he moved into his sister’s Auburn-Gresham apartment on 87th Street and Racine Avenue. His commute to Bridgeview became a manageable two hours, but working weekends from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. was tougher because there was no Pace bus service. And if the factory only needed workers for half a shift, Rose said many of fellow employees would walk to Cicero Avenue in the dark along a desolate industrial corridor to get to the bus stop.

Rose now works in the city, but still faces a long commute to get to his bakery job on 37th Street and Kedzie Avenue.

“It’s pretty hard to believe what some workers have to go through just to earn minimum wage,” Bell said, adding that rides from some underground van services don’t come cheap. Trips can cost $5 each way and add up to $200 a month. He said that eats away at workers’ paychecks since the minimum wage in the suburbs is only $8.25.

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Following the last two recessions, the Chicago area’s manufacturing sector has shrunk by one-third. Even worse for the city’s factory workers, the balance of remaining jobs is shifting further out into the suburbs. Since 2001, Chicago has shed 49 percent of manufacturing jobs and suburban Cook has lost 40 percent — far more than any of the collar counties.
Source: Illinois Department of Employment Security


While transit officials blame money woes for hamstringing the expansion of public transportation services, the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Jacky Grimshaw said funding is only part of the problem.

“You have to have money to build anything, but it is also political will,” said Grimshaw, the center’s vice president of policy and a CTA board member from 2009-2015.

Take the Red Line. Former Mayor Richard J. Daley promised in 1968 to extend it to the city limits. The extension still hasn’t happened, Grimshaw said, although other new lines and expansions have occurred.

“It is money obviously, but there is also the decision-making process that contributes to whether or not we have the transit system where we want it,” she said.

Pace officials recognize the growing population of reverse commuters, but the system isn’t set up or financed to serve these riders. Ninety cents of every federal and state dollar allotted to the Regional Transportation Authority supports CTA and Metra to take workers to Chicago’s central business district, said Rocky Donahue, Pace’s deputy executive director of external relations.

“That doesn’t leave a lot of money for what we see is a very big changing demographic,” Donahue said. “What we are seeing is more people live in the suburbs, more people work in the suburbs. Even those who live in the city are trying to get to the suburbs, yet we are not making an investment into a suburban transit system.”

long_haulEven the Regional Transportation Authority, which provides oversight, funding and regional planning for CTA, Metra and Pace, acknowledges the need to invest in reverse commuters. Of the more than 400,000 people who commute from Chicago to jobs in the suburbs, 12 percent ride public transportation, according to 2014 figures from the authority.

RTA has been involved in several initiatives to better connect people and jobs, including subsidizing a pilot for the only Metra train developed specifically for reverse commuters. Launched in 2007, the Sunrise Express carries city residents to the North Suburbs where most work at high-end service sector jobs.

“The reverse commute market is really tricky because you got this more spread out area, and when you are in a suburban environment you don’t have everything necessarily at the train station,” said RTA’s Executive Director Leanne P. Redden, who called the Sunrise service a success.

The line, which leaves Chicago’s Ogilvie station at 5:40 am, runs into Lake County and is met by Pace shuttles and buses, which take people to their places of employment.

North suburban employers worked with Metra, Pace and local politicians to offer this transit option to employees at corporate office parks. In 1996, the Transportation Management Association of Lake/Cook, worked with Metra and Pace to provide door- to- door shuttle bus service for these employees.

Transit officials say employers at suburban manufacturing companies and industrial parks can launch similar initiatives for their workers.

Pace has partnerships with employers, like its agreement with UPS to shuttle workers from Chicago to the company’s Southwest Suburban Hodgkins facility. The agency is working with Amazon to develop transportation options for workers at the company’s distribution center near Joliet.

Transit agencies have to do their part to provide efficient public transportation, said Freemark of the Metropolitan Planning Council, but some of the onus is on suburban planners and developers to build employment centers accessible by transit. Industrial parks should be in denser locations and have pedestrian infrastructure, he said. And employers must be more creative in addressing workers’ transit needs like utilizing cabs, Uber or providing free shuttles, he said.

State officials must also see the value in investing in public transportation, Freemark said. “If you don’t do that then you are isolating people from jobs.”

Davis said even when there’s public transportation, it’s difficult to get to work. To work a night shift at a Northbrook Mariano’s, Davis had to take two trains and a Pace bus to get to work by 9 p.m. Between Pace, Metra and CTA , the father of a 5-year-old son, spends $80 every two weeks in transportation cost.

He has looked for work in the city, but Davis said people need to know someone to get a foot in the door.  Jobs in the city are tough to come by and even tougher to get to if they are in the suburbs, he said.

“There are people out here that need to work, but just don’t have no way to get there,” said Davis, who wants to start his own van service to transport people to jobs in the suburbs.

“Seems like that’s where all the jobs are at.”

Data Editor Matt Kiefer contributed to this report.

This is the second in a series on black unemployment in Chicago.

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  • mhjhnsn

    Let’s remember that Cook County and Chicago actively discourage employment with the property classification system that makes industrial and commercial property taxes very high (in order to make residential taxes low). Add in the “corruption tax” and you explain a lot of why the jobs have left. Not all of it, but a fair amount, certainly.

    As for what to do, mostly the best thing is to let the market address it with jitneys and private buses that entrepreneurs can deploy quickly to efficiently connect people’s homes and jobs. Other than basic safety matters, don’t over-regulate this, help it happen, and a lot of people will benefit.

    There may be a role for some Metra reverse-commute trains, but if you know anything about railroad scheduling you know that this is a very inflexible mode and Metra can only do so much.