The Time Tax: Public Transportation’s Unseen Toll on Fragile Community Residents

blurred bus photo

People living in fragile communities face many barriers to upward social mobility, including poverty, crime, low-performing schools, inequities in law enforcement, and limited economic opportunities. And, believe it or not, transportation. This is known as the “time tax”.

Frequently jobs that offer career advancement for fragile community residents are located far from home. Since many residents often do not have access to a car, public transportation, buses in particular, are the only means of getting to work and improving their quality of life.

To get a sense of what it’s like to rely on a bus – or several buses – to get to work every day, take a look at “Bus Stop Jobs,” a short documentary produced by Craig J. Richardson, Ph.D., Director of the CAO-supported Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.

This short film illustrates one woman’s challenges in Forsyth County, balancing work, raising a child, and managing a home life given her long bus commute to a career-focused job.

“It took me three buses to get to work,” explains Brittany Marshall in the film. “I had to catch the bus from here, I had to go to the bus station. I had to wait on a bus to go to the mall. I had to go to the mall and then I had to catch another bus station and then I had to get to where I was going.”

Commuting Time

Many far-away jobs require bus commuters to start their workdays early — often hours before their shifts — and return home late in the evening. Frequently the commute involves waiting at bus stations for the bus to arrive in the rain, high heat, and extreme cold.

“I’ve been caught in the snow. I’ve been caught in the rain,” says Marshall in “Bus Stop Jobs.” “It’s awful in the rain. Shoes wet, socks wet, freezing cold.”

There are other obstacles. The bus breaks down, is late, or unreliable, inhibiting fragile community residents’ ability to get to their jobs on time. Bus service can be erratic.

Routes can be far apart, intervals can be changed last-minute and routes can be altered. “During the pandemic, the bus schedule in Forsyth County has gotten even less frequent, due to the need for frequent cleanings,” explains Richardson.

All of these factors contribute to longer commutes for bus riders. Often, the longer an average commute is, the harder it is to move up the economic ladder. Chronic lateness can lead to job loss for cause – which can prevent securing future jobs.

The Time Tax

passengers on the inside of a public bus

In 2018, CSEM commissioned a study of riders who use Winston-Salem Transit Authority buses to get to work. One finding showed that riders spend an average of 12 hours a week on buses getting to and from work.

“Extra-long commutes for bus riders mean that every activity now takes more time; as the old saying goes, ‘time is money,’” says Richardson.

“A trip to the grocery store, hunting for a new job, accessing a doctor, or getting an infant to child care can take hours on a bus instead of minutes in a car.”

“What if my son has an emergency?” asks Marshall in the film. “I’d have to take three buses just to get back here. Timing means everything.”

Spending so many hours just getting to and from work, doesn’t leave a lot of time for helping a child with homework, exercising, taking a class, or attending social, religious, or cultural events. This translates to an average of 624 lost hours per year.

“These hundreds of lost hours spent commuting each year are what one bus rider called ‘a part-time job where you get paid nothing,’” explains Richardson.

“In other words, bus commuters are faced with a ‘time tax’ of lost hours that could be spent earning more money, investing in family time, or having leisure time like other families with vehicles.

Impact of COVID-19

With the pandemic, commuters might encounter longer waits in grocery stores. While people with cars can drive from store to store, it’s more complicated for bus riders, who have to switch from one bus to another, often now with limited routes.

Sometimes more affordable stores are further away. Additionally, new jobs like food or grocery delivery or ride-sharing drivers require a car – leaving fragile community residents without the ability to apply for these positions.

It’s worth noting that in CSEM’s survey of 215 employed bus riders in Forsyth County, about 78% were African American and as a result are particularly at risk for being exposed to the virus while riding buses. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted minority communities, with the greatest proportion in the Black community.

What Can We Do?

A lack of reliable and efficient public transportation is a barrier for many fragile community residents who are trying to build a better life. How can we improve their access to better transportation?

CSEM’s research and the “Bus Stop Jobs” documentary provide an insight into how fragile community residents experience public transportation. “Our research has had an impact on community-wide discussion on innovative and alternative ways to provide transportation across the city,” says Richardson.

In one instance, CSEM’s research led a local community college to revise its assumptions about how their students got to campus. “Innovation in transportation offers much more flexibility in providing solutions in a sprawling city such as Winston-Salem,” he adds.

Some companies in other cities are experimenting with innovative ways to lower commute times and improve access for residents of fragile communities. Durham-based TransLoc is combining micro-transit solutions, such as vans, that link up with existing bus routes.

Uber has initiated Uber Transit, partnering with existing mass transit networks for the “last mile” of transit and in Denver launching its first in-app option for public transportation. In Pinellas County, FL, Uber provides direct connections for bus riders – including late-night workers – to 26 mass transit stops at discounted rates.

Conclusion: Decrease the Time Tax in Public Transportation

Public transportation was designed to provide an affordable way for fragile community residents to move around cities and towns.

Yet, even though it is intended to facilitate equity, the time it takes to ride a bus is an invisible tax on fragile community residents – the time tax. The time spent waiting for buses, riding the bus, and transferring between bus lines has an opportunity cost.

Fragile community residents could utilize that time lost on education, job advancement, caring for children, or supporting their health.

Improving bus service or providing alternative transportation options could be a time tax credit, giving back a precious resource to fragile community members that need more time to improve their economic situations.

Public transportation systems need to be redesigned with innovative solutions to decrease the time tax, so that fragile community residents can overcome this opportunity barrier and maintain jobs that have career advancement potential.

Without a focus on the time tax, the best intended equity-focused solutions will not have the intended impact, and fragile community residents will remain unable to achieve economic mobility.