Economic geographers have come up with a number of sophisticated ways of measuring the "spatial mismatch" between jobs and housing that occurs in any city when those essential needs are spaced far apart (temporally or literally) for many workers. Virginia Parks, an urban geographer at the University of Chicago, still believes, though, that it's a powerful metric simply to ask people how much time they spend commuting.
"The analogy I use is that one of the best questions a doctor can ask a patient is 'how do you feel?'" she says. "The commute is still a really good indicator of 'how do you feel?' How does the city feel?"
Data to answer this question is readily available in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, which asks people to self-report the average time they spend commuting. Parks has taken this data in metropolitan Chicago, focusing on the subset of residents there considered in the "working poor." These are employed people living and commuting from households that earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line.
Break that group down even further by race, and Parks found a stark result in Chicago amid the answers to this simple question: Blacks self-report longer commutes than their white counterparts, traveling to presumably the same jobs.
"These are folks who are all employed in low-wage work, and yet African Americans still have to travel further, which means that more of their wage has to cover the commute," Parks says. "They’re taking home less money at the end of the day, even given a pretty low-wage job."
Using ACS data from 2011, black low-wage workers spent about seven minutes more one-way on their commutes than white low-wage workers in metropolitan Chicago. That's about 14 minutes a day, or 70 minutes a week. The disparity was even stronger among black women, who spent 80 minutes a week more getting to and from work than white women from the city's working poor.
That's 80 minutes that can't be spent on overtime work, or running errands, or supervising homework.
"And now you've got to pay for 80 minutes of extra daycare," Parks says.
Parks' data, from unpublished research that she recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, doesn't extend beyond Chicago. But the city has a long history of racial segregation that suggests the spatial mismatch between jobs and housing for blacks there might be particularly grim. (The disparity in Parks' research was much smaller for Hispanics, who've experienced less extreme segregation in Chicago.)
Parks proposes that blacks – and black women in particular – face (at least) three obstacles. Economists reason that women and minorities often have to travel further to find the same job opportunities as whites, assuming that non-discriminatory employers are fewer and harder to find than those who'd hire a white man. The other two challenges speak directly to the communities in Chicago where minorities often live: Not only do they lack jobs close to home, but they also lack good access to transit to connect them to work elsewhere.
In this way, the spatial mismatch between jobs and housing is as much an issue of transportation as of segregation or economic development. Parks is agnostic on the policy solution implied by that: The city could work to create more jobs in black communities. But it could also improve transportation out of those communities to job centers that already exist.
Either way, the city has to confront a decades-long legacy of unequal opportunity.
"Change at one particular point in time can have a very long-lasting impact on how cities look and grow," Parks says. "So you can have the Great Migration north happening in the context of extreme racial residential segregation, and we still see the ramifications and impacts of that in 2011."
Top image from a Chicago El station: Flickr user Fuzzy Gerdes.