published Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Chattanooga poor in connecting jobs, workers via public transport

Qwintral Branham rides a bus through downtown Chattanooga on Wednesday. Branham is unemployed and relies on the public transit system as he searches for a job.
Qwintral Branham rides a bus through downtown Chattanooga on Wednesday. Branham is unemployed and relies on the public transit system as he searches for a job.
Photo by Allison Love.

JOB ACCESS VIA PUBLIC TRANSIT

The connection between job locations and public transit in Tennessee's metropolitan areas ranked among the worst of the nation's 100 largest metro areas.

Percent of jobs accessible by public transit:

Memphis - 63.8 percent, rank 65

Chattanooga - 50.7 percent, rank 91

Nashville - 49.4 percent, rank 92

Knoxville - 44.3 percent, rank 98

Percent of workforce that can use public transit:

Memphis - 20.4 percent, rank 70

Knoxville - 17.5 percent, rank 80

Chattanooga - 16 percent, rank 83

Nashville - 15.6 percent, rank 84

Source: Brookings Institution

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As Qwintral Branham searches for work, his biggest problem isn't his qualifications or the constricted job market, but finding a job on the bus line.

Branham relies on public transportation for everything. He said Chattanooga's system serves him well, but he hasn't been able to find a job he can get to.

"It really does help. I can go look for a job without using gas," he said. "But it's got to be a job on the bus route."

Only half the jobs in the Chattanooga metro area are accessible by public transit, according to a study released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution, which does metropolitan research. That makes the Scenic City one of the worst in the country for that category, ranking 91 out of the nation's 100 largest metro areas.

That leaves job seekers like Branham struggling to find work and some companies struggling to find employees.

The South as a region performs particularly poorly when connecting laborers to jobs compared to the rest of the country, falling several percentage points behind the national average.

In Chattanooga, there is no public transit service to major employers such as Volkswagen and Amazon.

"The problem is these places have sprawled out so far, the amount of job sprawl and household sprawl is significant," said Adie Tomer, a senior research associate with the Brookings Institution who authored the report. "What you're left with is a city that has a transit system and suburbs that do not."

Places such as Red Bank, Lookout Mountain, Soddy-Daisy and East Ridge no longer supply any funding to CARTA, which is almost entirely dependent on funding from the city of Chattanooga. That leaves the service with limited capability to serve the sprawling Chattanooga metro area, focusing instead on the core city.

"We have a very large urbanized area and we receive significantly below average funding at the local level," said Tom Dugan, CARTA's executive director. "If you don't receive funding from the small cities, you don't provide services to the small cities."

Dugan said CARTA received only about half of the public funding provided for the bus system in Knoxville.

Among major regions of the country, the Brookings study found the percent of jobs accessible via public transit to be the lowest in the South.

Southern cities tend to spread out more than older cities in the Northeast and grew up with the automobile, allowing businesses and homes to be built far away from one another.

"When you spread these things out, it gets harder and harder to get around by bus," Dugan said.

Faced with sprawl and a lack of funding, CARTA has focused on serving populations which need the bus the most -- lower income individuals without their own transportation.

Tomer said close coordination between city planners and transport officials is key to improving transit situations like Chattanooga's.

"The key is, these elements are not diverse from one another," he said. "Even if we plan them in separate ways, the results are totally intertwined."

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