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Rochester's transportation and poverty are linked, report says 

If you live in the Rochester area, want to get a job, but don't have a car, you're in a tough spot. That's been the conventional wisdom in Monroe County for some time, perpetuated through individual experience, anecdotes, and public discussions.

And a new report commissioned by Reconnect Rochester, a local transportation advocacy group, confirms that line of thinking and backs it up with some firm numbers. Ultimately, the analysis points out that there's a disconnect between where many people live and work in Monroe County, as well as employees' means of actually getting to their jobs.

In particular, the report shows that people who have access to cars also have much better access to jobs. And low-income workers who can't afford cars can have a hard time just getting to their place of employment.

The report, "Transportation and Poverty in Monroe County: How Land Use, Job Locations and Commuting Options Affect Access to Jobs," was drafted by the Center for Governmental Research, which Reconnect Rochester hired.

Transportation can help lift people out of poverty, but the report shows that it's also a structural barrier, says Mike Governale, president of Reconnect Rochester. In a way, the region's transportation system forces people into owning cars, a situation that's been exacerbated by increased decentralization of job locations, he says.

Here's how that works.

The largest share of the county's low-income jobs – 30 percent – is located in the city, and 45 percent of those jobs are held by city residents. Another 12 percent of Monroe County's low-income jobs are in Henrietta, and Greece has an additional 10 percent. Workers from across the county fill these jobs, the report says.

In contrast, Rochester had 46 percent of the county's high-income jobs – defined as anything paying above $39,999 – but only 20 percent of those positions are filled by city residents. (Those figures, as well as those on the low-income jobs, are from 2015.)

Low-income workers are heavily dependent on transit, and they have substantially longer commute times, if buses even reach their jobs. On average, people in cars in Monroe County get to work in 21 minutes, while bus riders have a 42-minute commute, the report says.

"To really address this problem, we have to build a transportation system that's equitable and works for everyone," Governale says.

Where people live and work, and how they get there, should count heavily in local decisions about land use and development, and in the region's economic development policies and decisions, Governale says. And the report should serve as a call to action for coordinated public and private investment in transportation, economic development, and anti-poverty initiatives, he says.

The report builds out a narrative piece by piece, starting with countywide population shifts, continuing into some details about how job locations have changed, and then pulling in some facts about how people get to their jobs and what obstacles they face, including prohibitive car ownership costs and long bus commutes.

The city's always been Monroe County's population and job center, but over time both people and jobs have sprawled outward.

Three-quarters of Monroe County's residents lived in the city in 1910, says the report. The population grew through the 1950's, when it peaked above 330,000, but then residents began moving to the suburbs. The city's population is now 208,880, and as of 2015, it had only one-quarter of the county's residents.

But the city is still home to 40 percent of the county's 288,000 workers as well as 40 percent of the county's jobs. Still, many city residents have to travel out to the suburbs to work, and many people living in the suburbs have to commute to jobs in the city. Only one in four county residents work in the same municipality they live in, the report says.

And how workers get to their jobs matters.

For the most part, people drive to work if they have a car; only 4 percent of car owners choose to commute by bus, the report says. But car ownership costs such as insurance, maintenance, and gas top $3,000 a year, according to the report. Those expenses, along with the actual cost of buying or leasing a vehicle, put car ownership out of reach for many low-income workers and some middle-income workers.

Public transit is a lot cheaper than car ownership, with a $672-a-year cost for someone who buys monthly adult bus passes, the report says. And low-income workers rely heavily on the bus system. More than half of bus riders have incomes that fall below 150 percent of the poverty level, which works out to $17,820 for one person and $36,450 for a family of four.

People of color make up 68 percent of bus commuters on a countywide basis and 74 percent of city residents commuting by bus, according to the report.

But the bus system has fixed routes and schedules, so where low-income earners live and work matters a little more than it would for people who own cars.

Public transit users – again, a group that's predominantly low-income – have a much harder time getting to work than car owners.

The 42-minute average commute time for Monroe County bus riders is really only part of the picture. Car owners may have an average commute of 21 minutes, but they're also able to reach all jobs in Monroe County – whether low-, middle-, or high-income – within 40 minutes, says the report.

Bus riders in low-income city neighborhoods can reach only 8 percent of the county's jobs within 20 minutes, 36 percent of the jobs within 40 minutes, and 63 percent of jobs within an hour. (The report doesn't say how long it takes to reach the remaining 37 percent of jobs by bus, or if they can even be reached by bus.)

RTS, for its part, has acknowledged that the bus system could work better for a lot of its users, as well as for potential riders. The agency is currently going through a comprehensive process to analyze and overhaul its bus system, an initiative officials have dubbed Reimagine RTS.

That's good, since the report from Reconnect Rochester – which is also heavily involved in Reimagine RTS – states clearly that transit has a substantial role to play in addressing poverty.

"The state of the transportation options in Monroe County and Rochester pose an equity issue for the community, both in terms of race and income. Drivers (who are whiter and wealthier than transit riders) face easy commutes and a wide access to jobs," says the report's conclusion. "Those who ride the bus face very long commutes and limited access to jobs. Given these differences, the transportation system writ large reinforces the disparities that already exist in the community rather than helping to reduce them."

Reconnect Rochester, the Anti-Poverty Initiative, CGR, the City of Rochester, Regional Transit Service, Genesee Transportation Council, Connected Communities Inc., ESL Charitable Foundation, United Way of Greater Rochester, and the Rochester Area Community Foundation are also working together on a broader initiative around the relationship between transportation and poverty.

The report will tie into those efforts.

"With a better understanding of this connection, our community can work to advance changes and create a more robust transportation system that will effectively address current inequities in access to employment," Rashid Muhammad of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative said in the press release for the report.

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