Living a struggle for carless residents in Western Pennsylvania
By Brian Bowling
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, 8:53 p.m.
A failing car and lack of public transit almost kept William Moore from taking a better job.
The position in Downtown Pittsburgh meant that Moore, 24, of Shaler would need a reliable vehicle. Otherwise, he'd have to hitch a ride to get to the nearest bus stop.
“I live in the suburbs, so I can't rely on public transportation,” Moore said.
After getting a used car at a reduced price from North Hills Community Outreach's Community Auto program, Moore was able to accept a position as a customer service representative for UPMC.
His transportation issues, though, are not unusual, according to a report released in October by the Center for Housing Policy in Washington and The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, two nonprofit think tanks.
They examined costs of gas, rent, mortgages, transit fares, car and house insurance premiums, population density and more to estimate housing and transportation costs. Their report is called “Losing Ground.”
The think tanks' researchers believe that studies examining only housing affordability are incomplete. A key part is location: Affordable housing needs to be where people can get to jobs, the grocery store and other points they must visit daily, they said.
The report found that housing and transportation costs for moderate-income households in the 25 largest metropolitan areas rose 44 percent between 2000 and 2010. Incomes, however, rose by just 25 percent during the same period.
Pittsburgh's housing and transportation costs increased 35 percent while incomes rose 29 percent.
The report ranked Pittsburgh first in affordable housing for moderate-income households but next-to-last in affordable transportation, putting the metro area seventh out of 25 for overall affordable living.
“It's a sophisticated study,” said Sabina Dietrick, co-director of the University of Pittsburgh's Urban and Regional Analysis program. A key part of Pittsburgh's transportation problem is its public transit system, the report said.
Social workers and public officials say they recognize how difficult transportation can be for Pittsburgh's suburbanites.
Elizabeth Edwards, manager of North Hills Community Outreach's auto program, said the nonprofit began the program because lack of transportation is the biggest obstacle facing people trying to find work.
“That's the whole point of our program,” she said. “We're trying to help working people who don't make a lot of money get a reliable car and become self-sufficient.”
Recipients must work at least 25 hours a week and earn less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level to be eligible for assistance. That is about $28,000 for a single person and $58,000 for a family of four.
“They have to work and they have to save up the money, but we do sell it to them below the blue-book value,” Edwards said.
Cars typically sell for $2,000 to $3,500. They come with a six-month warranty, a AAA membership and car seats for children.
Moore had a car when he graduated from St. Francis University with a degree in English, but the Ford Escort was on its last leg and he knew he couldn't afford to fix it up enough to pass another safety inspection.
Until he bought a 1996 Oldsmobile from North Hills Community Outreach, he thought he would be stuck clerking at a grocery store within walking distance of his home.
“I wouldn't have been able to take the new job when it was offered to me,” he said.
Traveler's Aid Society of Pittsburgh, Downtown, provides gas cards for the Community Outreach recipients, according to Executive Director Robert Lindner.
In 2010, it provided bus passes for people who were unemployed for the first time or who had recently been hired.
Funded by a $75,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation and United Way, the transportation program lasted about seven months.
“We were turning people away right and left, and the money ran out quickly,” Lindner said.
The society plans to revive the program in January with a $100,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments, he said.
“It will probably last about six months,” he said.
High bus fares and limited service drove Lauren Simmons, 25, of Knoxville to buy a 2003 Oldsmobile from the auto program.
It would often take four bus transfers for her to get her 5-year-old daughter to day care, she said, which limited where she could work.
Some employers won't hire you if you rely on public transportation to get to work, she said.
“That's the first question they ask: ‘Do you have transportation?'” Simmons said.
In Braddock, Heritage Community Initiatives started a van service a decade ago to supplement limited bus transportation, said Michelle Atkins, Heritage's president and CEO.
“The single largest barrier to any service you need in Mon Valley and generally in the region is transportation,” she said. “We started this program to try to solve that need.”
The vans carry people to bus stops so they can reach their jobs or job-training programs. The federal funding that provides the service limits it to work-related trips.
Sarah Morgan, Heritage's transportation manager, said demand increased when Port Authority of Allegheny County cut routes in March 2011.
The van service went from providing about 5,500 rides a month in early 2011 to providing 12,600 rides in August.
The program has 2,600 registered riders, and has to deny rides to 50 to 60 people a week because vans are full, she said.
“We know that there's a lot of latent demand out there.”
Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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