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How an Insufficient Public Transportation System Decelerates Economic Mobility

By Sean Rusnak, Health Policy Fellow

Greenville, South Carolina is a rapidly growing, increasingly urban area – that has one of the lowest funded public transit per capita among Southeastern cities. But what does that matter? Afterall, no one rides public transit in the South; we love our cars and like to have control over when we come and go.

Yet, the general assumption that everyone can afford or operate a personal vehicle – they just need to work hard enough – contributes to an economic system that results in cyclical poverty, restricted opportunity, and negative long-term health outcomes – succinctly captured in the notion of economic mobility. Economic mobility is the capability of individuals or families to improve their economic status; the ability to “pull yourself by your own boot straps.” Poor economic mobility is indicative of systemic issues that relegate people to poverty, despite the actions they take to improve their quality of life, including attaining higher education. Children born into communities with low economic mobility face systemic obstacles that restrict academic achievement, financial stability, and overall health. Greenville County ranks among the worst counties in the nation in terms of economic mobility, due to a failure to address the interrelated systemic issues of housing, education, and transportation. The underinvestment and subsequent dearth of public transportation in Greenville County actively limits the opportunity of children to pursue the American Dream and improve their quality of life.

Transportation = Access to Housing, Employment, Education and Healthcare

Transportation is equivalent to access; it mediates the ability of individuals to physically interface with resources and amenities in their community. Public transportation exists to ensure that all community members can access these resources, regardless of their ability to afford or operate a personal vehicle. Access to housing, employment, education, and healthcare are all dictated by transportation. Transportation is often expensive; it is typically the second largest expenditure for households next to housing. Combined, housing and transportation can total over fifty percent of a household’s yearly income if affordable options are not available. In Greenville, nearly a third of households live on less than $25,000 per year. Considering the average cost per year of owning and operating a vehicle is approximately $9,000, many of these families depend on public transit. Riders are beholden to public transit, regardless of the quality of the service. This reliance is often portrayed as a reason to minimally fund public transit because dependent riders will ride regardless. Not often enough do we consider how an insufficient public transportation system directly contributes to creating dependent riders.

Creating Dependency

Infrequent and inconvenient public transportation creates a feedback loop for dependent riders that prevents them from maximizing their economic potential, which they could use to purchase a car. Greenlink, Greenville’s only public transportation, runs hourly Monday through Friday 5:30 am to 7:30 pm (one route until 9:00 pm), Saturday from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm, and not at all on Sundays. The short hours and infrequency of the service make it difficult for people to access second and third shift jobs, night classes, and even grocery stores. Greenlink, like public transit agencies across the country, restricts its riders more than it benefits them in its current state due to its inadequate funding.

While parents are the primary utilizers or riders of public transportation, children of dependent riders are impacted by this reliance on the system in every way. Take for example the following story of a Greenville mother and daughter (pictured above) who rely on Greenlink as their primary form of transportation:

“This mother and daughter leave home, walk to the bus stop, take that bus to the terminal, switch buses, and go across town to the little girl’s school. After dropping off her daughter, the mom waits for an hour for the next bus to do it in reverse. In the afternoon it’s a repeat of the morning routine.”

Factor in that the Greenlink bus system operates on one-hour frequencies (others come around as often as every 10 or 15 minutes), and you realize the challenge riders face to efficiently get where they want to go. This story alone reinforces the importance of public transportation and illustrates the negative impact a poorly funded and functioning system can have on the success of a child and the stress it can place on an entire household. From the onset of their daily routine, these two likely wake up earlier than nondependent riders, resulting in less sleep which can decrease academic performance, weaken the immune system, and is linked to obesity.

Furthermore, the time that the mother spends getting her daughter to and from school results in less opportunity to work, capping her income. If the mother is a wage earner, as many dependent riders are, her earning power is severely limited by the hours she loses on the bus. Limiting earning potential inhibits the ability of households to buy healthy food, pay for healthcare, and save money, all of which are determinants of health.

Forget income. The long wait between buses and inconvenient route drains a mother’s most valuable resource: her time. This mother’s opportunity to go grocery shopping or to a doctor’s appointment is completely stifled because those errands are likely to add several hours to her daily travel. Consider new mothers who rely on the bus for transportation. Surely many of those missed critical post-natal appointments are due to insufficient transportation.

Quality of Life is Impacted

Finally, let’s consider how an inconvenient transportation system is limiting this little girl’s academic potential. Let’s assume she rides the bus, between 2 and 3 hours a day, each trip to and from school taking approximately an hour, to an hour and a half. How much do those lost three hours impact her academic achievement and ability to, “pull herself up by her own bootstraps?” Those lost hours detract from the time she needs to do her homework. She could do homework on the bus, but it may be too loud, or she may get reprimanded for her resulting sloppy handwriting. Maybe she needs help with homework, but her mother has a backlog of chores from lost time riding the bus. How can she find time to cook a healthy meal or do laundry, let alone help with homework? Maybe the daughter is late to or misses school all together because the bus was running late or broke down. The reality of relying on an insufficient transportation system is more than just an inconvenience.

There are countless ways that insufficient public transportation limits opportunity. We didn’t even consider the implications of no night or Sunday service. For many Greenville residents, and countless others across the nation, the failure of public transportation constrains their ability to improve their quality of life, no matter how hard they try. We expect people to pull themselves by their own bootstraps but forgot to provide the boots (or bus) to start with.

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