It’s easy to assume that public transit policy is about nothing more than transportation – how to move people efficiently within and between cities. Public transit policy is important in combating major challenges such as climate change. There are other less obvious layers to public transit policy.
One important layer to public transit policy is its importance to the economic success of a community, as I’ve written about previously. Reduced gridlock and improved transportation speeds growth in an economy, and public transit is increasingly important to attracting skilled workers to a community.
Going another layer deeper we must look at public transit’s impact on the equality of opportunity for citizens within a community. Effective public transit is a major factor in the difference between a society where citizens can easily integrate into the labour market and a society where some members face greater challenges to labour market integration.
As a front-line employment services worker I see this at play each day. One of the major factors in job-search planning is access to transportation. This is a factor overlooked by car-owners. In planning the job-search, when the answer is “I have a car so transportation isn’t a problem”, I know that that person has no geographic restrictions in their job search. When the answer is “I use public transit” I know that this person will be restricted in where they can job-search. They cannot work in rural areas. Intercity transportation is complicated and often impossible. Areas underserviced by transportation are out of the question, particularly when looking at employers who have shift-work; perhaps a 9-5 shift is possible, but if evening or early morning work is required, the person simply cannot work that job. Their targeted list of potential employers is unfairly whittled down by access to reliable transportation.
Employers are well aware of this challenge. I’ve heard of many employers who struggle to attract and retain workers because of transportation, particularly for work where the remuneration wouldn’t be sufficient to own and maintain a car. As gas prices rise, rural employers and those on the periphery of town will find it more and more challenging to attract the employees they need. Many employers include access to a vehicle as a prerequisite for employment – either public transit isn’t available, is spotty, doesn’t meet the needs of their hours of operation, or they seek employees who can be flexible and make it in at a moment’s notice.
Here in Waterloo Region if you want options in your career, if you want to have full access to the labour market, you need a car. Period. This fact more and more is leading to an unequal society where people are divided socially by those with vehicles and those who use public transit. Poor access to transit leads to a lack of potential for upward mobility. Skills, talent and human potential is squandered.
This is an important consideration for two groups of people. Low-wage earners, those with a marginal attachment to the labour market find themselves in a circular pattern of un(der)employment. Their low income (or lack of any income) makes owning a vehicle impossible. As such, they are limited in their access to employment which ensures gaining and retaining higher-paid employment is more challenging. Those lacking education and up-to-date skills training (often older workers) are more likely to find themselves in this group, as are youth. Young workers in Canada retain a much higher unemployment rate, often double that of the general population with a much lower rate of inclusion. Marginalized people can easily remain marginalized in part through access to transportation.
The second group hardest hit by lack of reliable transportation is new Canadians. Immigrants, particularly recent immigrants, are far less likely to own a vehicle. This is due to a number of factors: lengthy licensing processes, lack of capital and lack of access to credit. Studies show that recent immigrants (last 10 years) are often twice as likely to use public transit to commute to work. If we consider the added challenges of finding work with public transit as the means of commuting, we can assume that transportation is one of (though certainly not the only) factor in the greater challenges immigrants face transitioning into the labour market. As we look at ways to ensure greater integration of newcomers into Canadian society, public transit needs to be one of those considerations.
The answer then, is not to continue with our car-first transportation planning (preferred in Kitchener-Waterloo for so many years). The reasons to centre on public transportation as the primary focus of transportation infrastructure planning are many, but we must consider social equality as one of the important factors. If our goal is to create a more just society where all – newcomers, young, old, you, me – have equal access to gainful, meaningful employment, then our public transit policy must take social inclusion into consideration. Public transit isn’t only about moving people from one place to another, but ensuring equality in social mobility.