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How lagging late-night transit harms vulnerable workers

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A new study details how night-shift workers suffer from poor transit options—and ways to make the overnight commute better

A women rides a bus alone late at night
The APTA’s new report, “Supporting Late-Shift Workers: Their Transportation Needs and the Economy,” released yesterday, calls for more support for this overlooked part of the workforce.

The American work day is 24 hours, but most public transit is oriented for the 9-to-5ers. A transit gap late at night and early in the morning is a growing burden for an expanding, and overlooked, part of the country’s workforce.

A new report by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), “Supporting Late-Shift Workers: Their Transportation Needs and the Economy,” released yesterday, calls for transit agencies, employers, and local governments to band together and make a renewed effort to help this often-overlooked constituency of transit riders.

These commuters typically get left behind when it comes to transit options for their commutes, adding to the problems caused by an underfunded transit systems and a disconnect between job locations and affordable housing, which make commutes longer, regardless of the time of day. Affordable transportation can give workers a leg up in employment, the opportunity to take a new job, and the security to save more money. As public transit ridership in the U.S. goes through a ridership crisis, it’s only more vital that riders at night don’t get ignored.

“As we continue to upgrade and modernize our public transit systems with an eye to the future, we can’t afford to leave behind one of America’s fastest growing areas of the workforce,” says Paul P. Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

More than 17 percent of the workforce in U.S. metro areas works the late shift, defined as shifts that occur between 4 p.m. and 6 a.m. This segment of the workforce includes fast-growing industries such as healthcare, hospitality, entertainment, and food service. Late-shift transit riders earn $28 billion in wages every year.

It seems obvious: lower demand for after-hours service from transit agencies means less of a need to run buses and trains. Less-frequent service means less dependability, hence late evening commuters look for other options, and demand decreases via a downward spiral.

But the APTA report offers strong arguments as to why that spiral should be stopped. Late-shift work includes fast-growing industries—ambulatory health care and social service jobs are projected to grow more than 2 percent each for the next five years—and often serve manufacturing centers and industrial parks that have round-the-clock staffing needs.

And new private transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft don’t cut it for many of these riders: Average fares for ridehailing services are multiple times more expensive than comparable public transit trips—an extravagance many hourly workers can’t afford.

A orange bus pulls up to a station late at night.
More than 17 percent of the workforce in U.S. metro areas work the late shift

The financial cost of working at night

In addition to the inconvenience of working overnight hours, the APTA study found late-shift staff already experience more financial strain. Not only do they receive 14 percent less hourly pay, on average, but the late-night transit gaps often require spending more of their paycheck on transportation. These workers are 40 percent less likely to commute via transit due to service gaps, meaning more money must be spent on personal transportation like car ownership. The average annual cost of car ownership eats up 30 percent of the pre-tax pay of late shift workers (AAA estimates average monthly costs for a personal car run $737 per month).

Even with the burden of reduced or nonexistent transit routes, many late-shift workers still use transit; the APTA founds that roughly 800,000 relied on public transit in 2016. The average late-shift transit trip is 48 minutes—double that of private car trips at the same time. Late-shift riders are continually underserved by the agencies they rely on: only 4 percent of late-night commute trips are made using public transportation, compared with 6 percent all day.

The transit gap a hurdle for workers seeking better paying jobs. While a restaurant position or bartending gig offers a great way to make quick money, lack of transit access means job seekers can’t take advantage of the opportunity. For instance, in New Haven, Connecticut, 69 percent of all jobs are located within walking distance of an active bus stop between the hours of 7 and 9 a.m. But between 10 p.m. and midnight, only 42 percent of jobs are similarly accessible.


How transit can do better 24 hours a day

Transit agencies face multiple hurdles to improve their overnight offerings. Often, evenings provide the only time to fix and upgrade vehicles and infrastructure. And schedules are often intermittent at best, solely focused on the busiest travel corridors: LA Metro, for example, runs an evening bus schedule that congregates routes downtown and runs every 30 minutes, leaving out a substantial number of routes and riders in its sprawling service area. Then there’s the question of safety and security, especially when the homeless use transit for shelter. Many larger agencies grapple with complaints and challenges when it comes to homeless riders. Public transit agencies, especially larger ones, grapple with customer complaints over perceived safety, hygiene, and behavior of homeless riders

Considering that late-shift workers have above-average turnover rates, and the cost of rehiring and retraining is substantial, it only follows the companies commit resources to helping improve the commuting experience. Laura Abshire, director of food and sustainability policy for the National Restaurant Association, noted on a press conference yesterday that the industry, which employs 15 million workers, depends heavily on transit infrastructure to succeed.

Transit agencies are feeling pressure from employers of late-shift workers, too.

“More and more often, we are hearing from our area’s largest employers—hospitals, financial institutions, and companies that have employees who don’t work the usual 9-to-5—about the need for access to high-quality, around-the-clock transit service,” said Katharine Kelleman, CEO of Port Authority of Allegheny County, a Pittsburgh-area transit system. “Late-night or 24-hour service would drastically improve their ability to recruit and retain employees and allow us to offer more robust transportation options to all of our customers throughout the Pittsburgh region.”

Despite these challenges, several transit agencies, cities, and even employers have made strides in serving the nocturnal workforce by partnering with private or nonprofit organizations to fill gaps that fixed-route public transit cannot serve.

The nonprofit mobility service Aequitas (Latin for justice), offers a private transit service in the Battle Creek, Michigan, region. Launched last year, it allows workers to pre-schedule rides and is funded in part by the local United Way and the Custer Industrial Park, where many late-shift employees work. Missed shifts due to transportation problems are one of the leading causes of termination and employers estimated that turnover cost them $3,500 to $4,000 per job.

In Detroit, the Night Shift initiative expanded access to the city’s late-night and 24-hour service lines by offering a $7 credit for Lyft or taxi rides that begin or end at a bus stop. Funded by the New Economy Initiative, a regional nonprofit, the program will provide 2,000 rides and run until the $2,000 budget is exhausted. Detroit’s bus network already has substantial evening ridership—the same percentage of the city’s late night commuters and daytime commuters utilize public transit—and this program only expands the ability for workers to tap into more affordable transit services.

“Detroiters are on the go, around the clock,” said Mark de la Vergne, Chief of Mobility Innovation for the Mayor’s Office of Detroit. “Adding 24-hour service to twelve core routes of [the Detroit Department of Transportation’s] network and piloting an innovative option like Night Shift demonstrates our ongoing commitment to addressing all of our customers’ needs.”

A number of other transit agencies have tried similar ridehailing partnerships, including Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) of St. Petersburg, Florida; MARTA, in Atlanta; and Topeka Metro, in Kansas. So far, no studies have been completed on these relatively new transit-TNC initiatives to evaluate whether or not they have been efficient in helping late shift riders.

Transit isn’t just a ride to work. At its best, it provides important savings and an opportunity for upward mobility. If the aim is to fund and support the transit infrastructure needed to give Americans a leg up, the new APTA report suggests, then its imperative that some of the most long and arduous trips at night become the focus of more improvement and innovation.