Get Me to the Job on Time

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When everything goes as it's supposed to, Barbara Lott-Holland can get from her home near USC to her job in Torrance in an hour and 45 minutes. But the 50-year-old clerical worker has learned to build more time than that into her commute.

At least once a week, one of the three buses on her route breaks down. Her average wait for a transfer is 15 minutes, but there's no guarantee the bus that arrives will have any room. If it's full and passes her by, she waits for the next one. If there's room only for standing on the next bus, Lott-Holland arrives at work fatigued, having started her daily commute around 6:30 a.m.

Lott-Holland has been looking for a job closer to home for the last year. But she's been unable to find anything approaching her current $30,000 annual salary. And more than once, a would-be employer's inaccessibility by public transit has stood in the way.

"Sometimes I'll have a friend drive me to an interview and if I don't see a bus stop anywhere, I put that job out of my mind," she said.

As many as 450,000 Los Angeles residents depend on public transit for their daily commute. Making matters worse for many transit-dependent workers, including Lott-Holland, is that they do not live in or near job-rich areas.

Researchers refer to it as spatial mismatch: In virtually every major U.S. metropolitan area, job growth in the low-skill sectors is moving outward, while the workers most likely to fill these jobs continue to be concentrated in the inner city.

"Jobs are decentralizing but affordable housing is not," said Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's not rocket science."

Los Angeles doesn't fit the classic spatial mismatch pattern, in which a dense central city is surrounded by a less dense suburban periphery. In fact, some experts argue that Los Angeles doesn't have spatial mismatch so much as spatial mishmash: There are job-rich and job-poor neighborhoods spread out in a checkerboard pattern.

But many transit-dependent workers still are feeling the effects. L.A. County's Urban Research Division studied the transportation needs of participants in CalWORKS, the county's welfare-to-work program, and concluded that more than a third of these individuals live in areas in which both job accessibility and transit are limited.

These areas include many communities in the southeastern section of the county, stretching from Long Beach to Pomona, as well as parts of the northern and western San Fernando Valley.

Workers who tend to fill entry-level and low-skill jobs are heavily concentrated in South-Central Los Angeles, East Los Angeles and downtown, noted Michael Stoll, a professor in UCLA's public policy school who has studied the issue.

For these people, areas with high job growth--such as Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena and the west San Fernando Valley--tend to be out of reach.

In Orange County, the high cost of housing leaves employers in the low-skill sectors with a shortage of workers. And the growing number of businesses reaching into Riverside and San Bernardino counties to draw employees has resulted in freeway gridlock, said George Urch, spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority.

In the Inland Empire, the problem is the opposite--plenty of affordable housing and not enough jobs, sending many residents on commutes of as long as two hours to Los Angeles and Orange counties, noted Steve Oller, deputy general manager for operations at the Riverside Transit Agency.

Commuting has become particularly heavy on the Riverside Freeway, as workers from Riverside and Corona use the main corridor connecting Orange and Riverside counties. Metrolink train service between the counties has proved popular.

"The problem is that it can't carry enough people to make that big an impact," Urch said.

For public transit users in Los Angeles, the issue isn't inaccessibility but rather the length of the journey and the frequency of the service.

"You can get from downtown or South-Central to the west San Fernando Valley, but with the transfers and the time it takes, it becomes prohibitive for certain workers to get jobs in those areas," UCLA's Stoll said.

In fact, the county's employed CalWORKS participants travel an average of only seven miles to work, according to the welfare-to-work transportation needs assessment by the Urban Research Division. The average one-way commute for all American workers is nearly double that.

"Improved transportation would result in a wider job search and pool of better-paid jobs," said Manuel Moreno, director of the assessment project.

The pool of potential jobs is further reduced for transit-dependent workers who need child-care services. Transportation lines don't necessarily run near available child-care providers, and even if they do, any task that involves leaving the bus and later boarding another one adds significantly to the time to make the journey, Moreno said.

Hours are another consideration. Many low-wage jobs require employees to work evening or weekend hours, when bus service is infrequent.

"I've occasionally been asked to work weekends, or to come in earlier, but I can't leave any earlier than I do," Lott-Holland said.

For Lott-Holland and others in her situation, even if they identify a job with a difficult but manageable commute, they might face skepticism from the prospective employer.

"If you say, 'It's going to take me three hours to get here, and that's only if I'm lucky enough to catch each bus on time and there are no breakdowns,' that potential employer is going to laugh at you," said Kikanza Ramsey, an organizer for the Bus Riders Union.

More likely, Ramsey said, the prospective employee will minimize the transportation burden, but face reprimand or worse if the problem leads to excessive tardiness.

Transportation can be a problem for employers as well. Mike Puetz, owner of Henri's Restaurant in Canoga Park, has experienced high turnover among minimum-wage kitchen workers who ride the bus across the Valley. "They'll take the job, and then quickly figure out that it's not really worth it to them," Puetz said.

Puetz is generally able to find applicants within the vicinity of the restaurant. But that's not the case for Hyatt Westlake Plaza general manager David Lewin.

The limited reach of public transportation to Westlake, combined with the dearth of low-cost housing in the area, make it a constant struggle to fill positions for housekeepers, dishwashers and janitors at the hotel. Lewin has gone everywhere from churches to coin laundries to recruit candidates.

Since most of the workers hired for these positions lack their own cars, Lewin said it is not uncommon to see employees dropped off several hours before their shift because that was the only ride they could get.

"My unskilled workers can barely afford to pay rent, let alone own a car and insurance," he said. "So they struggle--they carpool, they hitchhike--Lord knows the things they do to get to work, but it's a real challenge."

At Warner Center, the Woodland Hills office and industrial complex that employs 40,000 people, the employers have formed the Transportation Management Organization, which works with city and county transit agencies to identify where new services to the center would be prudent.

Express bus lines have been established from the Antelope, Santa Clarita, Conejo and Simi valleys. The organization also helps to organize vanpools and carpools from various parts of Los Angeles.

"Obviously, there are jobs out here, but not everyone can afford to live by where their jobs are," said Christopher Park, executive director of the organization, one of about a dozen such groups in the region. "And the money the government spends on transit is typically focused on getting people downtown."

But that is beginning to change, particularly as the requirements of the new welfare system focus greater attention on the transportation difficulties that prevent low-skill workers from getting to suburban jobs.

"Welfare reform has led to much more sophisticated analyses of where low-skill jobs are located, where the working poor live and the ability of the transit system to connect the two--or, alternatively, whether programs are in place to help people get cars," said Katz of the Brookings Institution.

For example, the federal Job Access and Reverse Commute program provides funding to states and localities for new transit services targeting welfare-to-work participants.

In Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will use the money to expand nontraditional services such as shuttles and vanpools, and to invest in smaller vehicles that are less expensive and more mobile, according to Scott Greene, an MTA transportation planning manager.

Other innovations include the two Metro Rapid bus lines the MTA started last year as a demonstration program with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

The buses--one running along Wilshire and Whittier boulevards from Santa Monica to East Los Angeles, the other spanning most of Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley--make fewer stops and benefit from traffic-signal-priority technology. The MTA is considering expanding Metro Rapid to as many as 20 routes.

MTA critics such as the Bus Riders Union's Ramsey believe that these services are not nearly enough. The Bus Riders Union's new service plan, written after the union reached a consent decree with the MTA in 1996 that required the agency to improve bus service for minority riders, calls for, among other things, 544 new buses and 50 shuttles.

The MTA recently asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside the consent decree, citing a recent civil rights ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"There is tremendous overcrowding in the system because there are not enough buses in the fleet and there are so many obsolete, dysfunctional buses," Ramsey said.

But many analysts believe the best way to help transit-dependent workers, at least in the short run, is with programs to help them gain access to cars.

"It's important as a long-term strategy to make major transit investments that help create better-managed, less automobile-dependent commutes," said Mark Alan Hughes, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "But we need short-term solutions as well. And the short-term solutions that make the most sense for welfare-to-work participants, especially in Southern California, are automobile-related."

He pointed out that many social services agencies and nonprofit organizations across the country have begun programs to support car ownership, providing help with either the purchase of an automobile or the cost of insurance and maintenance.

Christy Johnson could not have kept her job without one such program. As an in-home caregiver, she drives her elderly client to frequent doctor appointments. But the 36-year-old Downey resident found herself without wheels when her 1985 Dodge Colt broke down.

With a gross income of around $1,000 a month, she was having trouble getting loan approval for another car. Johnson benefited from a program run by the nonprofit Los Angeles Mission, in which donated cars are repaired and sold below market value to needy individuals.

Johnson paid $300 for a 1987 Nissan Maxima in good running condition. Through CalWORKS, she obtained insurance for $450 a year.

Of course, strategies to increase car ownership have their own drawbacks. Besides the cost issues, such programs run counter to clean-air goals--and more cars mean more traffic congestion and longer commutes.

But, Hughes said, "When middle-class people start getting into the bus at the same rate as poor people in the service of these broad goals of reducing highway congestion and air pollution, then we can talk. Until then, I think we need to make a special exemption for people for whom this can make the difference in being able to get a job."

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