March 9-15, 2006
city beatA Much-Needed Lift
Getting to work in the burbs just became easier for some low-income city residents.
: Michael T. Regan
Add in the time waiting for buses, Foy averaged three hours a day commuting. He wasn't alone.
Over the years, Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP) director John Dodds noticed many clients had trouble keeping jobs in the suburbs, mainly because of convoluted commutes. But now, Foy and four co-workers will have it easier, thanks to a new "vanpool" program for low-income city residents. On Tuesday, PUP launched the Commuter Options Program, in which city residents needing to reach jobs in the suburbs or the Far Northeast can pay up to $5 daily to use a van driven by a co-worker for round-trip transportation.
A staff of five at PUP will coordinate workers, recruit employers and plan routes. (One will also help connect job hunters to new opportunities.) The program currently has two vans and about 10 participants. Besides the Schramm vanpool, other commuters work at a Trevose medical-billing firm. Dodds hopes to have 20 vans serving about 200 workers by year's end.
"They don't want to spend four hours a day riding a bus," he said, noting benefits for employers as well. "We can tell them, 'we can get people and get them there.'"
During the past two years, Dodds lobbied for $1.48 million in federal funding to get the program on the road. He got help from U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who earmarked funds in last year's federal Department of Transportation budget. The federal money, routed through the federal Job Access and Reverse Commute program (JARC), is intended to use transportation as a means to help workers get off welfare. (The state Department of Labor and Industry and the Department of Public Welfare have contributed matching funds.)
If joining was a no-brainer for Foy, it's somewhat of a puzzle why public-transit and job-placement experts weren't already thinking outside the bus. The feds have funded vanpools and similar ventures since 1998 through JARC. But, explained PUP transportation manager Will Maus, there are simply too many places where SEPTA doesn't go, like the Schramm factory. The only other vanpool for reverse commutes is run by the Partnership for Jobs and Housing, an offshoot of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, which has six vans with full- and part-time drivers, serving up to 75 workers a week. Lorenzo Harmon, GPUAC's transportation manager, said the key to success for PUP's venture, considering that participants are driving the vans, is that "there's someone responsible for that vehicle." (In other words, since it's integral to their livelihood, they'll be sure to take care of the van.)
In 1998, Ed Schwartz, president of the Institute for Civic Values, tried unsuccessfully to prod local and state officials to fund similar vanpools. "Historically, we've thought that it was OK to be building highways for moving to nice places in the suburbs," he observed, "but there hasn't been too much thought [devoted] to going from the city to nice jobs in the suburbs."
The program takes on greater import considering the city's four suburban counties gained an estimated 32,000 jobs since 2000 while the city lost 14,000, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Over the next five years, the commission predicts, there will be no job growth in the city, while the suburbs will add 75,000 more workers.
Schwartz said the biggest hurdle for job-hunting welfare recipients is not finding a job, but having the time to handle day care and other child-rearing duties. His own study of city residents' transit travel times to suburban jobs was an average of about 75 minutes one-way, assuming trains and buses ran on time. That compared to an average of about 30 minutes for all workers.
"It's a terrible problem for these women who have kids," he said. "It's important that they're doing this."