Harvard researchers connect parents' short commutes with kids' upward mobility
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Parents will do almost anything to make sure their children are better off than they were growing up. They uproot to be closer to better schools, sacrifice to maintain a stable family environment, and scrimp and save to send their offspring to university.
But if you really want to know if your kids will have a better life than you, it turns out there’s one question that really matters: How long does it take you to get to work?
That’s the surprising finding of a new study out of Harvard University, which discovered a shockingly high correlation between commute times and upward social mobility.
Part of a major ongoing research project aimed at finding ways to give poor kids a route out of poverty, the study examined counties across the United States. Researchers found that the biggest indicator of whether a neighbourhood promotes upward mobility is the proportion of residents who have commute times of 15 minutes or less. That one factor was deemed more important that the quality of local schools, family cohesiveness, and even household income.
Nathaniel Hendren, one of the study’s co-authors, was astounded at how strong the connection was. “Really, it’s off the charts,” he said.
Hendren stresses that researchers can’t say with certainty that better transportation directly leads to better economic prospects for children and their families. It could be that areas where commutes are longer not only have fewer transportation options, but also other features that stifle opportunity, such as a history of racial and economic segregation or a lack of high-paying jobs.
“It’s not necessarily saying that if you build another train line you’re going to improve upward mobility,” Hendren said. “(But) what we do know . . . is on average, if you move from a place that has longer commutes to shorter commutes, it will improve the upward mobility of your kids.”
Other recent research has also drawn a strong link between transportation and economic success. A study from the Rudin Centre for Transportation and Policy Management at New York University found that New York City neighbourhoods where residents rely on insufficient transit had fewer job opportunities and exhibited the highest unemployment rates and lowest incomes. A 2014 study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that people who had greater transportation access spent less time unemployed after losing their jobs.
While he doesn’t know of a similar Canadian study, labour market expert Tom Zizys says, “transportation is absolutely a challenge on the employment side” in the Toronto area.
In places like Peel and Halton regions, where there are logistics operations located outside central areas, long commutes and limited transportation options are problems for workers and employers.
“We’re talking about entry-level jobs, minimum-wage jobs, and people can’t get to them,” he said.
And there are no signs that’s changing. The proportion of commuters in the communities bordering Toronto hasn’t changed much in the past 10 or 15 years, said Zizys.
Urban sprawl has trapped many residents in her northwest Toronto ward, said Councillor Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre), a former school trustee and TTC chair.
Low-income earners, many working more than one job, end up transferring between two or three bus routes. Frequently they wait for two or three buses to go by before they can board.
“If you’re working two or three jobs, you’re too tired to go to PTA meetings, you’re too tired to help with homework,” she said.
For many children in her ward, Augimeri said, “It’s not even in their life agenda to travel to downtown Toronto.”
Carolyn Haight, 46, loves the leafy view from her apartment balcony on Scarlett Rd. north of Eglinton Ave. The bus service, not so much.
It gets her to work near Bloor West Village in about 25 minutes. Other trips in her Etobicoke area aren’t so easy.
A bakery worker, Haight says her $1,300-a-month apartment was the best value she could find for the money. But limited TTC service in the evenings puts added financial and lifestyle restrictions on her life and that of her 18-year-old daughter.
The bus that stops closest to their apartment doesn’t run after about 7:30 p.m.
“If you don’t take that one you’re walking in the dark for a good 25 minutes,” said Haight.
When her daughter finishes a late shift at her part-time job, she has to take a bus south and transfer to travel north toward home. “She’s wasted 45 minutes after work to get home even later,” said Haight. Sometimes she resorts to an $11 or $12 taxi ride.
Grocery shopping at the nearest Metro is also an ordeal. “I have to walk 25 to 30 minutes to get to the grocery store and generally take a cab home, so I’m wasting a lot of money,” she said. Taking transit would require transferring between at least two buses.
“For people that don’t drive and have to rely on the system, it can be very time-consuming and inconvenient, because things certainly don’t always connect,” said Haight. “There’s nothing where a bus conveniently takes you to a grocery store. You have to walk. There’s no choice; you’re going to spend many hours in the day travelling.”
Next year, Haight’s daughter wants to attend Humber College near Finch and Highway 427.
“That I think is going to be a bit of a doozey. That’s going to be far,” she said.