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Reverse Commuter Programs: Are Workers and Employers Getting Good Mileage from Them?

August 2001 / Community Development, Workforce Development / Abell Reports

Van services linking inner city residents to suburban jobs don’t make the connection every day. Unpredictable service, unprepared workforce combine to limit programs’ success.

The distance between an entry-level job and a prospective entry-level worker is measured in more than miles. A would-be worker’s age, education level, background of trouble with the law or with addictive substances,
and family experiences with employment may reflect a need for support and training for the job search, as well as the job itself. When such an employee from the city is newly hired for a position in the suburbs, where demand for service-sector employees is booming, he or she is likely to need more than just “a seat on the bus” to stay on the road to success. But that seat on the bus is still very important, and some Baltimore City residents would not be able to find or accept a job in the counties without it.

Job growth in the Baltimore region’s suburbs, particularly in service positions that tend to be filled by new job market entrants and low-skilled workers, has been outstripping Baltimore City’s job growth for years. The boom areas for entry-level employment in food services, retail, warehouse, and similar work environments are not, for the most part, where many people available for this work make their homes. Scholars of geography and urban planning refer to this phenomenon as “spatial mismatch,” but under any name, it’s a familiar trend that shows no signs of abating.

Spatial mismatch is not a new discovery, and transportation strategies linking city dwellers with suburban workplaces are not a new response. Baltimore, like other regions, has tried some of these strategies, known collectively as “reverse commuting.” The most common of these approaches is the use of van services to bring city dwellers to and from jobs at locations that are served poorly or not at all by the region’s mass transit system. Starting in 1997, a handful of programs have combined transportation services with other types of preemployment and employment support to Baltimore City’s job market entrants with the goal of placing them in worthwhile suburban jobs they can retain.

The Abell Foundation asked researchers from the University of Maryland’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to study the successes and limits of local programs. Professor M. William Sermons and research assistant Erin Morrow, together with Alissa Gardenhire of Harvard University, collaborated on the study, “Effectiveness and Sustainability of Reverse Commuting As An Access to Jobs Strategy.” It is summarized in this issue of The Abell Report. The report reveals:

  1. Transportation alone cannot close all the gaps that separate many city residents from suburban job options. Work readiness issues must be tackled, especially with chronically under- or unemployed people, before a transportation program can succeed at providing employers with dependable employees, and employees with a long-term chance at work and advancement.
  2. Reverse commuting should be targeted at jobs worth commuting to: those that offer living wage, benefits, and a schedule consistent and reasonable enough not to cause havoc with workers’ child care arrangements and family responsibilities.
  3. Transportation services themselves can also cause havoc in workers’ lives if they are undependable or too lengthy. Van trips that are ahead of or behind schedule, that skip stops, or that are skipped entirely, have been cited by employers, caseworkers, and employees themselves as reasons the employees could not retain their suburban jobs.
  4. Wages for similar work are comparable in Baltimore City and its suburbs, meaning that the extra time and dollar costs of longer commutes are not typically covered by greater earnings in the distant suburban jobs.