CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- In the two months since he lost his job driving a delivery truck for a door company, Lebron Stinson has absorbed a bitter geography lesson about this riverfront city: The jobs are in one place, he is in another, and the bus does not bridge the divide.
Stinson lives downtown, where many of the factories that once employed willing hands have been converted into chic eateries. The majority of jobs are out in the suburbs, in the strip malls, office parks and chain restaurants that stretch eastward. Most of this sprawl lies beyond reach of the public bus system, and Stinson cannot afford a car.
Friends have told him about a building materials business that would hire him on the spot, but the company is 26 miles away and over the Georgia state line, reachable only by car. A plywood company would hire him, too, but that job is 30 miles away. Merely getting to the state Career Center to maintain his a $180-a-week unemployment check and search through job listings on a public computer requires a 40-minute bus ride.
Lean, able-bodied and proud, Stinson is accustomed to earning his way. He does not want an unemployment check any more than he wants extra time to sit around his cramped apartment watching daytime television. He would much prefer not using the food stamps that have become the only thing sparing him from hunger. He wants what he has had for most of his 49 years: He wants a job.
But in Chattanooga, as in much of America, getting a job and getting to a job are two different things.
“That’s the thing that hurts me the most, having experience and qualifications, but you can’t get to the destination," Stinson says. "It’s a painful situation here. I’ll tell you, I’m not one to give up hope, but, man, it makes your self-esteem drop. Your confidence disappears. Sometimes, I just can't think about it. You get so it's all that's in your head. 'I need a job, but I can't get there.' I just want to feel like I’m back, like I’m part of the world again.”
Stinson's challenge underscores a formidable barrier separating millions of poor Americans from the working world, particularly as work continues to shift to the suburbs: Limited public transportation networks reduce the ability of those who need work to actually find it, worsening an already bleak job market.
On top of the most catastrophic economic downturn since the Great Depression, the continued impact of automation, and the shift of domestic production to lower-wage nations, here is a less dramatic yet no less decisive constraint that limits opportunities for many working-age Americans: The bus does not go where the paychecks are.
Nearly 40 million working-age people now live in parts of major American metropolitan areas that lack public transportation, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. The consequences of this disconnection fall with particular severity on the poor. One in 10 low-income residents relies on some form of public transportation to get to work, according to the report.
In the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, nearly half of all jobs lie more than 10 miles from the downtown core, according to a prior study by Elizabeth Kneebone, a Brookings researcher. For the typical resident, more than two-thirds of the jobs in the 100 largest metro areas are beyond range of a 90-minute commute using mass transit. A separate Brookings study released this week finds that the typical job in major metro areas is accessible to only 27 percent of all working age adults within an hour-and-a-half commute on public transportation.
Many of the country's best-connected metropolitan areas are in the West and the Northeast, according to Brookings. Despite its notoriety as a car-centric domain, the Los Angeles metro area has a mass transit system that gets within three-quarters of a mile of 96 percent of all working-age residents, the study finds. The San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Miami and Las Vegas are similarly well served. The least-connected urban areas are in the South, among them Nashville, Richmond, and Jackson, Miss.
At the bottom of the list is Chattanooga, a metropolitan area with an official labor force of about 262,000 people. Here, only 22.5 percent of working-age residents have access to public transportation.
Among urban planners, Chattanooga has developed a reputation as a place that has gotten a lot right in recent times. Its redeveloped waterfront on the banks of the Tennessee River features a pedestrian-only bridge. A free shuttle bus service operates downtown, using a fleet of electric vehicles. Bike rental stations dot denser neighborhoods.
But as work has continued its steady march to the suburbs, the transit system has failed to keep pace, limited by what local officials portray as weak public financing. The result is a metropolitan area in which anyone without a car faces severe limits on employment options.
“There are whole parts of town where the bus doesn’t go,” says Robert Lawrence, who runs a job search program at Chattanooga Community Kitchen, a social service agency focused on the homeless. “Bus service doesn’t run at all if you’ve got a third-shift job. Some of them walk for miles, every day and late at night. A lot of them lose their jobs. It’s tremendously frustrating.”
For the frustrated people here, the limits of mass transit restrict the boundaries of possibility, reinforcing poverty and a nebulous sense of futility. They can see opportunities, but often cannot reach them -- at least not without extraordinary struggle.
For Stinson, it all dates back to a summer night five years ago, when a tire on his 1987 Chevy pickup truck went flat while he was driving near his house. He pulled into a parking spot, left the pickup and went home. When he returned the following morning, his vehicle was gone. He reported it stolen to the police, but it was never recovered.
His delivery job was only a five-minute walk. But when that business shut down in April and he began looking for other work, he found himself studying the bus schedule alongside the job listings -– an exercise full of exasperation and missed opportunities.
As the months pass without a paycheck, his eyes show the weight of sadness and wounded pride.
“Sometimes, it hits me and I get so depressed," he says. "I’m like, ‘Man, what is happening?’ You feel like you’re losing your mind. I’ve got to do something. If I had transport, I’d be back at work by now. I know this."
WHERE THE SKY IS BLUE
When Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield was growing up in the 1950s, his father worked in textile plants in mill towns in Georgia and Tennessee. Nearly all the workers occupied modest homes clustered near the factories.
"My father never drove" Littlefield says. "He would always walk to work. We don’t build cities like that anymore. Perhaps we should."
As Littlefield, 66, forged his own career as an urban planner, he watched U.S. metropolitan areas push out their boundaries. "Everybody wanted to live out in the suburbs and have an acre or two," he says. "They wanted to be out where the sky is blue and the grass is green, with cul de sacs, and curvilinear streets and no sidewalks."
Government enabled this development by constructing an arterial system of roads and highways that put the private automobile at the center of life, yielding the suburban sprawl that defines major metro areas from Phoenix to Houston to Atlanta.
As people have come to live further apart from one another while commuting greater distances to their jobs, running public transit systems has proven increasingly challenging and expensive, requiring broader areas of coverage. At the same time, economic inequality has separated many communities into two camps -- those who can afford cars, and those who depend upon buses and trains.
This is especially so in medium-sized cities such as Chattanooga, whose metro area is home to about 530,000 people, putting it in the company of Modesto, Calif., and Jackson, Miss. In big, dense cities such as New York and Chicago, traffic can be so awful that even millionaires who can afford chauffeured limousines sometimes ride subways to avoid congestion. But in communities like this, traffic is nearly nonexistent, making cars the favored conveyance for anyone who can afford one.
Roughly three-fourths of the ridership on the public buses operated by the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority are people who lack an alternative, up from about half in the late-1970s, says Tom Dugan, the authority's executive director. The reality of the bus as a vehicle that most local people neither encounter nor desire translates into weak local funding for the transit authority, Dugan complains.
"Most of our people are the working poor," Dugan says. "In Chattanooga, no elected official is going to win an election based on a transit issue."
Roughly one-third of the system's $15.7 million operating budget comes from the city, with 40 percent coming from rider fares, and the rest from state and federal support. Two years ago, when Dugan compared his system to those of 56 metro areas with similar populations, he found that Chattanooga ranked 52nd in local funding per capita, and 53rd in the percentage of transit money that comes from local sources.
"In any city, public transport is an important part of the transit system and that seems to get lost," Mayor Littlefield says. "Some of the more conservative people in the community believe that it's OK to spend public money on roads, but it's not OK to spend on public transportation, such as buses and rail -- that those have to be self-supporting."
The tenets of the so-called New Urbanism infuse local planning discussions with encouragement of bicycling, walking and mass transit. Updated zoning policies have clustered condos near new office space and bus service. Young professionals are fixing up bungalow-style homes that formerly sheltered downtown factory workers, eschewing the suburbs for life within pedestrian proximity to shops and restaurants.
While this trend may eventually yield better-connected neighborhoods, the present is still colored by mismatch, with major employment centers setting up out on the periphery, far from mass transit.
In recent years, two major employers set up in an office park some 14 miles east of downtown. Volkswagen manufactures its popular Passat sedans here, employing some 3,200 people. Amazon.com has set up a distribution center that employs 2,000 people.
Yet one major barrier prevents would-be job seekers like Stinson from securing positions at either of those locations: The nearest bus stop is a half-hour walk away. The bus line that stops there, the Number 6, offers limited service, requiring that passengers call a dispatcher to request a bus.
That bus doesn't run before 6:45 in the morning, making it difficult for people on early shifts to get to work on time. It doesn't run after 6:45 in the evening, making it challenging for people who work nights to get home. On Sundays, it doesn't run at all.
TALKING TO GOD
On Sundays, when Sharon Smith must get to Amazon.com for her minimum-wage job cleaning the restrooms, she must walk along the shoulder of a highway for more than three miles.
She takes the Number 4 bus. She steps off at a busy intersection flanked by a BP gas station and a SunTrust bank and sets out on foot, walking alongside speeding cars for about 90 minutes.
Smith, 43, is willing to make that walk because her job at Amazon amounts to her escape route from the downward spiral that seized her last fall, when her beat-up 1997 Infiniti finally succumbed to wiring problems. Fixing the car would have cost $2,000. That was money she did not have, not on the $9-an-hour she was then earning cleaning the restrooms at the Volkswagen plant through a staffing agency.
Once her car died, she could no longer reliably get to work, and they were cutting her hours anyway. She had often driven all the way out to the plant, only to be sent home after an hour or two. Without a paycheck, she fell behind on the $350-a-month rent and was eventually evicted from her apartment. She landed in a homeless shelter that had been set up temporarily, just for the winter months.
When spring came, she pitched a tent in a makeshift encampment carved into a slice of scraggly brush set between railroad tracks and an abandoned warehouse. She bought a barbecue grill at a dollar store, using it to grill chicken and pork chops she procured with food stamps. Her restroom was the bushes or the public facilities at the Community Kitchen, the social service agency nearby.
She contended with ticks, spider bites, and the men in tents all around her, who were prone to drunken fights and petty theft. They stole clothing, bicycles, food and even toothbrushes, she says. One of them once sneaked into her tent seeking sex, she says, and she had to fight him off. Someone swiped her cell phone, which had all the phone numbers she valued in the world, including those of her four stepsisters.
Her cheeks burnt pink by the sun and her blond hair pulled back into a rough ponytail, Smith conveys a sense that she is prepared to protect herself. "I can take an ass-whooping as much as I can give an ass-whooping," she says. But after two months in the tent, she could bear it no longer. She took refuge in a vacant house that had been lost to foreclosure, a place lacking both water and power. She lights candles, cooks on her grill, and cadges buckets of water from unsuspecting neighbors, tapping their garden hoses when they are away, in order to flush the toilet.
"This is humiliating to me," Smith says. "It's embarrassing to be in this situation. How in the hell did this happen?"
This is a purely rhetorical question. Smith has been homeless before, and she has struggled with drug addiction -– crack cocaine in particular -– which devoured her life in Atlanta, where she worked as an installer for a local telephone company, earning some $60,000 a year. "I met this guy," she says, the preamble to a tangled story that involves losing her four-bedroom home, her job and her mental well-being, along the way landing in Chattanooga.
She has been clean in recent years, she says, and she is intent on achieving a modest form of self-sufficiency, a station centered on one key element -– a steady paycheck.
"My dream is just to have an apartment," she says, "a place somewhere where I can lock a door, and I don't have to worry about someone coming in and stealing my clothes. I'm just trying to get myself stable again. I'd be satisfied with a one-room shack, as long as it's got a door that could lock."
But even that aspiration felt beyond her as she trudged to staffing offices looking for work -– nearly any sort of work.
"There's all kinds of things I can do," Smith says, rattling off the ways she has earned a paycheck -– driving a forklift, operating factory machinery, mopping floors, and installing Internet service. But one thing she could not do kept tripping her up. She could not get to most of the jobs.
"They'd ask me, 'Can you get here?' and I'd be looking at the bus schedule," she says. "I'd tell them, 'I'll figure it out.' A lot of temp places don't even want to hire you if you don't have a car and you have to take the bus. If you call a temp agency and say, 'Do you have any jobs on the bus line?' they will flat out say, 'No,' and hang up on you."
The agency that hired her for the job at the Amazon plant cut her a break. She started on the morning shift, which required that she arrive by 6 a.m., but that was impossible given the bus schedule. The boss offered flexibility.
"She told me, 'Whatever time you can get here, that's when you start,'" Smith says.
She started in April. Since then, she has earned about $500 every two weeks, saving as much as she can toward securing an apartment. She has investigated the motels that have become de facto housing for low-wage service sector workers, but rejected them as a trap. Most would absorb most of her pay, leaving with her with almost nothing toward the security deposit she needs to get an apartment. The one motel she could afford –- one that charges $125 a week –- sits in a neighborhood known as Red Bank, which is devoid of bus service, making it impossible for her to get to work.
Back in her Atlanta days, she was making $26 an hour. Now, she is at the bottom of the American wage scale, but she celebrates this as a beginning.
"Seven twenty-five an hour is better than zero," she says. "I'm going to work, and if I have to continue to walk, I will. I will do whatever I've got to do, except get on my knees or lie on my back. It's tiring, it’s frustrating, it's rough, but you've got to crawl before you can walk."
This is the thought that drives her as she leaves the abandoned house and heads for the bus stop, trudging through the muggy southern Tennessee air.
She is working night shifts lately, so she makes this trip in the mid- afternoon. On a recent day, she is wearing a faded and too-big black T-shirt bearing pink letters: "MOTIVATION 101." She got it out of the donated clothes closet at the Community Kitchen. A purple backpack is slung over her shoulder, holding the ID card that gets her into the Amazon plant, the debit card on which her paycheck is deposited, her driver's license, her Social Security card.
"Everything that I really have to have in my life is in this book bag," she says.
She pulls out one of those items, a piece of plywood with a phone number written across it in pencil, the number of a man with a vacant apartment who will accept the so-called Section 8 voucher she has recently secured, entitling her to federally subsidized rent. Assuming that his apartment passes a required inspection, she can move in three weeks from this day.
"Three weeks," she says repeatedly, as if chanting a phrase that will open the gates to a better world. "If I can make it through these three weeks."
The Number 4 bus makes its way past the hulking shells of dismantled factories now shadowed by knee-high weeds, then across a highway overpass, and past a cemetery for soldiers, the white markers laid out like dominoes. It rolls past an Applebee's restaurant, a Krispy Kreme donut shop, a Bi-Lo supermarket, and a pawnshop. It goes by the Hamilton Inn, a tan fortress of a motel shimmering in the heat, where Smith knows a room with a mini-refrigerator and stovetop can be had for $231.72 a week, but where vacancies are rare. It goes past Fast Quick Loans, where a yellow banner draped across the storefront promises: "First Loan Free."
"Most of the time, I doze off," Smith says, "but sometimes I look out the window. It's relaxing. You can look at things and get a better view."
The bus goes past a Sears department store and a furniture outlet. Forty-five minutes after the beginning of this journey, it turns into the Hamilton Place shopping mall, where Smith steps off and transfers to the Number 6, which -– after another 30 minutes -– deposits her a half-hour's walk from Amazon.
Unless it is a Sunday.
On Sundays, she steps off the Number 4 at Shallowford Road and walks west for three blocks, then north up Hickory Valley Road, past mostly empty spaces punctuated by churches -– the Hickory Valley Baptist Church, St. Michael's Charismatic Anglican Church, Tyner Pent Church of God.
"I believe in God," she says. "I talk to him the whole way as I'm walking. I just thank him that I woke up today, and that I'm not using drugs. I thank him for my job. I look at this way: God has something in store for me. I just haven't figured out what it is yet."
She arrives at Amazon just before 6 p.m, tired and sweaty. She uses baby wipes to clean herself up. She spends the night scrubbing toilets, scraping gum off floors, putting soap in the dispensers, and wiping the mirrors.
When her shift ends, just after 6 in the morning on Monday, she walks a half-hour to a Shell station and dials the CARTA dispatcher to ask for a Number 6. Once, she waited in the pouring rain for more than two hours, she says, but most days, the bus comes within a half-hour. While she waits, she sits on a block of concrete and watches cars go by.
On a recent afternoon, Smith taps her latest paycheck for a $300 down payment on a used Ford Windstar van.
"I can live in the car, sleep in the car, find somewhere cool to park and just lie down," she says.
She can free herself from the Chattanooga bus system, and proceed with her plans.
"I don't care what the car looks like, as long as it gets me from point A to point B," she says. "All I've got to do is make it through these three weeks."
'I WAS A PART OF THAT'
For Lebron Stinson, time seems to be rolling backward, with each week adding to the distance separating him from the working world.
Back when Stinson was a teenager, he played trumpet in his high school band. He played so well that he got recruited into a working R&B group that played gigs in Atlanta and Knoxville -- the Inner City Emotions.
He enrolled in college. But when he was 19, he met a girl at a softball game, and everything changed.
“Lo and behold, there she was pregnant,” he says. “I had to leave the band, leave school, and get familiar with Pampers.”
Needing to support a family, he began bartending a waiting tables at a local country club, earning about $350 a week -- decent money in the mid-1980s. Then he jumped to driving a truck and he earned more. By the early-1990s, he was earning about $40,000 a year, he says, running a distribution route for a local bakery.
“I loved that job,” he says. “I’d wake up and spring out of bed like I was going to a party.”
He moved into a duplex apartment with wall-to-wall carpeting and a balcony -– "a small bachelor’s luxurious pad,” he says. He bought a motorcycle.
But when he came back from a vacation, the boss confronted him with complaints that out-of-date product had been landing on customer's shelves. It cost him his job.
“Ever since then, it’s been rough,” he says. “All downhill since then.”
Desperate for something to pay the bills, he took what was available -- a job as a maintenance technician at a motel for $9 an hour. Then he got a job as a driver at a recycling company, where he made $10.25 an hour. But he lost that position after kidney surgery laid him up for several weeks, he says. His next job, at a building materials supply operation, paid only $8.50. He gave up the duplex apartment for a bedroom in a rooming house. For the last five years, he’s been making $7.25 as a driver for a door company.
“Backwards,” he says. “It’s devastating.”
When the door company shut down in April, he found himself needing food stamps and an unemployment check. Merely figuring out how to apply was bewildering, he says.
"It’s still sinking in," he says. "I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go. I’m not accustomed to begging and relying on others.”
He went everywhere he could reach by foot in search of another job, he says. He stopped in at hotels downtown to ask about building maintenance or valet parking positions. He showed up at construction offices and courier services. Most of the time, he was turned away and told to apply online.
“Me being a truck driver, I’m almost computer illiterate,” he says.
On this day, Stinson takes the bus to the Career Center to check job listings. He sits in a waiting room and stares at the orange walls until a caseworker emerges and calls his name. She shows him three active listings, the maximum he is allowed to see each time.
One is a full-time job for $9.50 an hour driving a delivery truck for Dr. Pepper and Snapple. The loading dock is less than two miles from his house. The bus doesn’t go there, but it's a manageable walk, he says.
But this employer will only take applications online. When the caseworker helps him navigate to the Web page using a Career Center computer, the site shows only jobs in Louisiana and Texas, and not the position in Chattanooga.
The second listing is for a part-time position, driving a school bus for about $9 an hour, from a spot that is more than three miles from his house and far from the bus. The third one is a warehouse position at the Amazon plant. It pays more than $10 an hour, but it's a shift job that ends after midnight. He could take the bus out there, but how would he get home?
"It seems like every move you make, you run into a bigger obstacle,” he says.
Friends with cars have offered to shuttle him to and from work, but he does not see that as sustainable.
“They’ll do that for four, five days,” he says. “Then they’ll start saying, ‘Well, I’ve got something else to do today.’”
What he has to do today is the same thing as most days: Try to stay focused. Try to stay fed. Try to get through the hours. Try to keep looking for work without dwelling on the particulars of a situation that does not add up.
The state deposits his weekly unemployment check onto his debit card -- $180, minus $65 for child support for his youngest daughter, who is about to turn 18. He pays $75 a week in rent. He goes to the grocery to buy some essentials -- toothpaste, eggs, and a beef roast that he plans to ration to get through the week. Like that, his balance is near zero.
“The grace of God is how I’m making it,” he says. “It’s just rough.
When he rides the bus, he finds himself studying the surroundings for signs of his imprint, reminders of his labors. There is the recycling center where he used to move boxes. There is the motel he helped bring into existence by dropping off the rebar.
“It gives you a sense of satisfaction, seeing what you helped build,” he says. “You think, ‘I was a part of that.’”
These days, Stinson feels a gnawing sense of torpor. He sits in his room watching television, the choices limited since he dropped cable to save money. “Gunsmoke. Bonanza. I Love Lucy,” he says. “Your old, wholesome, antenna TV.” He flips through women’s magazines that pile up in the mailbox, the subscriptions of a long-departed tenant.
“Sometimes, when you just sit at home for long periods of time, you get fatigued,” he says. “You get bored. You do.”
He knows that his physical health is key to staying ready to work, but it's hard to stay in shape while he is sitting around, even as he forces himself to do calisthenics. It's hard to eat right when he is counting down to the penny and sometimes yielding to the temptations of cheap comfort in the face of too much time to kill.
“I’m not eating enough vegetables,” he says. “You’re already depressed, so you just pull something out of a box and throw it in the microwave.”
It is debilitating, he says, the joblessness, the lack of transportation, the torturous feelings of being stuck. Yet there are moments of clarity. It hits him that he is but one break away from regular life. All he needs is a job.
“I just can’t get there, man,” he says. “I say to myself every day, ‘If I had transportation, I could do what I set out to do, find a job with fair pay and be productive.'"
Check out the metropolitan areas where residents have the hardest time getting to work using public transit: