Perspective: Getting from home to work

Published October 10 2014
Updated October 10 2014

On the surface, these maps of Tampa Bay, Denver and Pittsburgh — all metro markets of similar job size — display the relative challenge of getting to a job via public transit.

But what these three maps really indicate is economic mobility. If you're looking to get ahead, to start or advance a career, where would you rather live?

In Denver, where 20,467 jobs are reachable, on average, within a 30-minute commute by foot and transit leaving between 7 and 9 a.m.?

Or perhaps in Pittsburgh, where 12,268 jobs on average are accessible in the same time frame?

Or in Tampa Bay where, despite a similar-sized employment market, only 6,865 jobs can be reached via public transit within a half-hour during the morning rush hours?

These are not academic exercises but critical measures of the economic competitiveness of U.S. metro areas. Young adults with talent and ambition will absorb the message of these maps when considering where they want to find (or start their own) work — and build their lives. Companies contemplating expansion or possibly even headquarters relocation already depend on this type of information in assessing how convenient it will be to attract the best talent that may be far-flung within a metropolitan landscape.

Accessibility works both ways. People want to thrive by access to the most promising workplaces. But businesses also covet the very best talent they can attract from the broadest possible geography.

Tampa Bay's sad message is pretty obvious. Workers seeking a greater choice of jobs within public transit commuting distance are on average far more restricted than their peers in like-sized markets like Denver and Pittsburgh.

Within a 30-minute morning commute by public transit, Denver offers access to three times the number of jobs reachable in the same time frame in Tampa Bay. Pittsburgh provides nearly twice the number of jobs than Tampa Bay based on a half-hour morning commute.

If those differentials grow, companies, especially those that offer higher-skilled and better-paying jobs that require top talent, will inevitably shy away from Tampa Bay. Any sharp-minded, bottom-line-focused enterprise does not want to be so limited.

Consider these startling metro market comparisons fresh fodder in deciding whether to support the Greenlight Pinellas referendum to bolster a weak public transit system with more and better bus service and an initial 24-mile light rail line. Voting for the referendum takes place on Nov. 4 in Pinellas County.

Also keep in mind that passage of Greenlight Pinellas is merely the start of a more comprehensive effort to establish a bus and rail service that stretches into Tampa and Hillsborough County. Hillsborough will closely watch the fate of Greenlight Pinellas and pursue its own public transit referendum soon if the Pinellas plan is approved by voters.

If Pinellas voters reject the mass transit plan, Hillsborough may well back-burner its own ambitions.

These three metro maps are part of a larger analysis, Access Across America: Transit 2014, from the Accessibility Observatory, a research group at the University of Minnesota.

The study estimates the accessibility to jobs by public transit in 46 of the 50 most populated metropolitan areas in the country using transit schedules from January 2014. The study involved calculating job access through transit from thousands of locations in dozens of cities, starting from every minute of the day. Their analysis factors in the amount of time it may take to walk to a bus or train stop, to wait for it to arrive, to transfer between lines midtrip, and to walk from the last stop to the workplace.

The study estimates the number of jobs accessible in each of the 46 major metro markets ranging from an average of 10 minutes by transit to as long as an hour.

When compared to all 46 metro markets, Tampa Bay ranked 21st in total employment but fell to 33rd in accessibility. In contrast, Denver ranked 20th in employment while soaring to ninth in accessibility — reinforcing the multitude of reasons that city is a magnet to a less car-obsessed generation of millennials. Pittsburgh ranked 22nd in total employment and also 22nd in accessibility.

Many metro areas in the study — Orlando, Miami and Cincinnati among them — ranked poorly in accessibility via public transit.

Of course, this study is not just about the benefits of good mass transit. It also points out that metro areas with a low density of jobs — jobs thinly spread out over a city and its suburbs — also suffer accessibility problems. Atlanta, for example, has lots of jobs and an ample mass transit system but still ranked poorly (30th) in accessibility because its jobs density is so low.

One other important matter is not taken into account in this study: job quality. The analysis did not account for the difference between, say, a $75,000-a-year technology gig or flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant among the 6,865 jobs reachable within a 30-minute transit commute in Tampa Bay.

But the conclusion remains unchanged. Lacking an efficient mass transit system, this metro area runs a serious risk ahead of getting shunned as a place of thinning economic opportunity.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

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