Commentary: Jobs in suburbs are inaccessible to city residents who lack transportation opportunities

JUANITA BYNUM had the skills, the resume, and work ethic to support her family but she was missing the one thing that close to 50 percent of low-income residents in our city need to reach their workplace - a car.

However, as part of a widely successful Commuter Options program run by the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, Bynum was able to secure a job with a good salary, benefits and room for advancement in Montgomery County at a Quest Diagnostics facility, despite the poor public transportation options available to her.

Most Philadelphians are not as lucky as Bynum, and city's outdated transit system has contributed to their continuing unemployment and poverty rates in the inner city.

The need for more decent jobs has been a constant in Philadelphia for decades. The industrial exodus that began in the 1970s has scarred our neighborhoods and too many families as good-paying jobs departed to the South, overseas and, in many cases, to the Philadelphia suburbs.

How we deal with the jobs issue has been a topic for nearly every elected official or candidate for office over these years. Tax cuts and credits have been tried repeatedly, with little success to bring jobs to the city. Philadelphia's unemployment rate is always among the highest of any Pennsylvania county, and over 27 percent of the population is in poverty. Black and Latino unemployment always runs far above the city average.

Over 35 percent of Philadelphians are transit-dependent, meaning they have no car of their own. In many minority neighborhoods, over 50 percent do not have private vehicles. This becomes a jobs issue, because of the changing landscape of employment in the Delaware Valley. In 1970, about half of all of the region's jobs were based in Philadelphia. By 2013, only about one-quarter were, because of job losses in the city and explosive growth in the suburbs. Large numbers of inner-city residents cannot reach the many jobs now found in the Philadelphia suburbs, and often these are better paying than those found in the city.

A 2009 Brookings study found that only 24 percent of jobs in the Philadelphia region are accessible in less than 90 minutes on public transportation. The research found that nearly 64 percent of jobs in greater Philadelphia are located more than 10 miles from downtown, making our region one of the most decentralized large metros in the United States, from an employment perspective.

Improving transportation options in the Philadelphia region can make a real difference in access to decent jobs for inner-city residents. In SEPTA, the region has a robust mass transit system. Over 130,000 people (mostly suburbanites) ride SEPTA's regional rail system into Center City every day. You can get nearly anywhere within Philadelphia using SEPTA. However as the economy has changed over the years, we find that our transit system - designed and built during a different era - is ill-equipped to meet the needs of thousands of people who could work in suburban jobs. The current system is thus helping to perpetuate the high unemployment rates found in our black and brown inner-city communities.

While SEPTA has reverse commute routes to the suburbs, large numbers of jobs are totally inaccessible by mass transit. There is no prospect of connecting our suburbs with a comprehensive transit grid as Philadelphia enjoys. There would never be the demand to justify the expense, as most suburbanites use their cars to go everywhere.

What we need is a flexible system to get Philadelphia workers to suburban jobs. This is where a program like the Commuter Options program comes in. It provides cars to inner-city workers to carpool to suburban employment, as so many middle-class residents do.

It began in 2006 with a fleet of minivans transporting over 100 workers a day to the suburbs. One of the workers in the pool drives and keeps the car all week. Commuter Options fits the need of carless Philadelphia workers and the reality of the new economy, which has far-flung jobs located throughout the suburbs. The program opens up opportunities to inner-city residents who are unable to reach these jobs, and it does so without the massive expense of criss-crossing the suburbs with bus and trolley lines.

Unfortunately, funding has been reduced, and the program is a mere shell of what should be a booming program to open up jobs for so many transit-dependent Philadelphians. These jobs will make an economic impact on not only the workers, but also their communities and the city, as new wages and wage taxes add to Philadelphia's economy.

We call on SEPTA and City Council to provide resources to expand this carpooling model to open up new opportunities for inner-city workers.

John Dodds is director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project.