DEFIESTA: Right to ride

City Limits

In New Haven, it’s all about the jobs.

defiestaJobs are one of the few things anybody talks about these days: more jobs for minority workers, more jobs for New Haven residents, more jobs for the youth. That’s why the jobs pipeline, “New Haven Works,” was one of the first accomplishments of the 2012-’13 Board of Alders, and why one of the hottest topics of last year’s mayoral race was how to bring more jobs to the Elm City.

Yet for all the talk about jobs, the city’s unemployment rate has remained stubbornly high. In November, the federal government recorded a 10 percent jobless rate for the city, more than three percentage points higher than the national rate. Those numbers are doubtlessly much worse for the poor, since more and more jobs are being created in New Haven’s new economy of education and biotechnology.

What to do? One answer might be found in local data nonprofit DataHaven’s Community Index, a report documenting the well-being of the Greater New Haven metropolitan region. (Full disclosure: I interned at DataHaven this summer and assisted on other sections of the report.)

According to DataHaven, the biggest obstacle to obtaining employment cited by job applicants in Connecticut isn’t a language barrier, lack of education or complications arising from child care. Instead, 84 percent of people who registered for the state jobs program, CTWorks, said they had trouble finding employment because of transportation barriers.

The report offers a few more statistics to explain this phenomenon. In the region, families with children that earn less than $50,000 a year are about 10 times less likely to have access to a vehicle than families making more than that amount annually. Public transportation isn’t helping, either, as the Brookings Institution estimates that only 27 percent of jobs in Greater New Haven are accessible with a 90-minute transit commute; Even within the relatively small city of New Haven, that number only rises to 42 percent.

That’s a lot of numbers, but you might be wondering what it all means. It’s simple: Any policymaker who is working to fix the city’s job situation cannot ignore the role that poor transportation access plays in exacerbating the dire unemployment plight, particularly for low-income families.

So I applaud Mayor Toni Harp for her statement this month saying as much. Transportation, she said, is a “civil rights issue, it’s an economic development issue, it’s a jobs issue … With better public transportation we can work to ensure a better quality of life for residents, particularly economically vulnerable families and seniors.”

So far, Harp has made good on those intentions. She appointed former Ward 7 Alder Doug Hausladen — who began his political career as a safe streets and cycling activist and heavily supported Harp foe Justin Elicker in last year’s election — to head the city’s Transportation, Traffic and Parking department, a brilliant choice to fill the shoes of former traffic czar Jim Travers. And her statement was in support of federal grant for a streetcar feasibility study brought up at an Economic Development Commission meeting earlier this month by director Matthew Nemerson.

New Haven has been down this path before. In 2011 and 2012, then-alder Elicker led the charge to receive federal funds, bolstered by city money, for the same streetcar study; the idea was shot down by most of the other alders as a waste of money and too focused on the downtown area.

This time, however, things might proceed a little differently. With the mayor’s office and Board largely aligned, perhaps the city will see a more serious consideration of revamping our mass transit, streetcars or no. As Nemerson explained, the feasibility study might not ultimately support the addition of a streetcar, but may instead direct our attention to redrawing bus routes within city limits. Still, the acknowledgement that transportation is integrally tied to jobs, economic development and, yes, civil rights, is a good place to start.At Yale, we fight for fair wages, fair immigration policies, fair treatment for people of all different identities. It might not be as sexy an issue, but it’s just as important that we fight for fair transportation for all.

Nick Defiesta is a senior in Berkeley College and a former city editor for the News. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at nick.defiesta@yale.edu.

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