Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia)
Trying to get around Hampton Roads is a big problem for the poor. It affects everything they do, from job hunting to grocery shopping.
At the end of October, Ann Lias cut back on trips to her son’s hospital bedside, the refrigerator in her modest kitchen grew bare and her six other children bristled as she hustled them off to school.
The eight miles separating Lias’ home in Newport News’ East End and her son’s bed at Riverside Regional Medical Center is a bottomless chasm — mercilessly devouring hours and dollars.
Without a car, Lias’ options are thin. Walking to see Larry would take hours, and riding the bus is a frequently frustrating journey that cuts deeply into the time that she spends at either end of the voyage.
Lias is one of the many Hampton Roads residents grappling with life without the mobility and convenience of a car, a plight that received new scrutiny after Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of poor New Orleans families were stranded amid surging floodwaters. While most Americans pilot themselves through the day, Lias asks for rides, hails cabs and herds her children onto buses.
Sometimes, it’s too much when Larry cries for her over the phone, describing the horrors of his most recent surgery and lamenting the loneliness of his sterile, austere room. In late September, Larry’s voice cracked. Lias broke down.
She rushed out to a nearby lender known for high-risk loans and exorbitant fees. The sole purpose of the $180 loan was to pay for a taxi ride to Larry that could end up costing her hundreds of dollars, further wound her dismal credit and keep food out of her pantry even longer. “My baby needed me,” Lias said frankly. “I wasn’t going to leave him alone.”
In early November, she let the gas bill run overdue so she’d have the cash to visit.
For poor families, even those with cars, getting around is a complex riddle that drains money and time. In many cases, Lias and people like her end up paying more for mobility than most.
“It’s really death by 1,000 cuts,” said Matt Fellowes, a senior researcher studying poverty and mobility for the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “It’s just stunning hearing the stories of people trying to get ahead. It’s a Herculean effort.”
THE KEY TO EVERYTHING
Mobility is such a vexing issues because it affects everything. At the social service offices on La Salle Avenue in Hampton, caseworkers describe transportation as an octopus with tentacles stretching into the finest nooks and crannies of life. “It’s not just economically,” said Ken Dixon, a senior case manager in the office. “The whole fabric and tenor of their lives is different.”
The unique geography of Hampton Roads also makes getting around even more daunting. To make sure that his students at the College of William and Mary grasped the obstacles created by sprawl, one professor sent 70 of them on a carless scavenger hunt around Williamsburg.
“While we are in name part of the same region, it can be brutal to get from place to place,” said Tim Roberts, director of the school’s department of environmental science and policy. “This community provides a window into a wider national problem.”
The bridges, tunnels and long stretches of interstate are even more of a burden on the poor. “There are these hidden costs that are almost always borne by the low classes,” Roberts said. “It can take you half a day to get from here to Virginia Beach.”
Those obstacles are only exacerbated by the prices that poor people end up paying. Poor car shoppers usually don’t have the luxury of bargain-hunting at a number of lots, and they’re less likely to use the Internet to make comparisons and find out what cars are actually worth. “I think that (auto) dealers prey on everybody,” Fellowes said. “It’s just that low- income folks are armed with less information.”
In the spring, Fellowes and another Brookings scholar studied the amount of cash that poor families in Philadelphia used on everything from rent to food. They found that families pulling in less than $30,000 a year frequently paid more than $500 more than affluent residents did for the exact same car. The pair is now spreading the study to a dozen other cities nationwide. Fellowes said it’s likely that the higher rates plagued the poor in Hampton Roads.
Already paying higher sticker prices, poor families also tend to shell out more over the long haul. Less than sterling credit means the loans they can get routinely have rates three and four times higher than wealthier borrowers get. Dixon said he knew about some local car lots that sold to low-income buyers knowing that the payments were overwhelming. When one family defaulted, Dixon said, the dealer simply repossessed the car and sold it again to a similar family until four and five people were paying for the same vehicle.
Families with smaller incomes are also apt to pay more for insurance coverage. Insurance companies use different factors to set rates, but the equations frequently use ZIP codes and sometimes take into account credit ratings. That forces poor families lucky enough to own cars to pay more, sometimes despite pristine driver records.
“What (insurance companies) do is target urban areas and raise the rates,” said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based watchdog group. “It’s a problem. It’s led to rampant discrimination in the insurance industry.”
Ideally, Heller said, companies would rely solely on driving records and the amount of time that drivers spend behind the wheel. Insurance industry analysts argue that more drivers and cars roll through urban ZIP codes, which means more danger. Credit scores are used, they say, because studies have shown that drivers with bad credit are more likely to file claims. Heller thinks that argument ignores that most suburban dwellers use urban roads to get to work and end up driving long distances at high speeds to get there. “Which driver’s more at risk?” he asked.
Even getting a driver’s license can be a big undertaking for poor families, especially given reforms put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Many people near the poverty line don’t have the original documents that the Department of Motor Vehicles requires, such as birth certificates and Social Security cards. Getting replacement documents usually requires a trek to Richmond that’s no simple task.
EVEN MINUTES COUNT
Lias is never sure when she’ll be bouncing back and forth between home and hospital because of Larry’s diabetes and aplastic anemia — a rare disease that causes the body to stop producing enough blood cells. Larry’s tiny body looks younger than his 21 years.
After two months in the hospital and seven surgeries, Larry was released from the hospital in early November. Lias helped him into an East End- bound private ambulance and then hopped into a cab, so she could catch up. Juggling needs would be easier if her husband, James, was still alive, but the former taxi driver was killed two years ago, when floodwaters from Hurricane Isabel washed his cab off the James River Bridge.
Like many poor parents on the Peninsula, Lias relies heavily on Hampton Roads Transit, which runs 19 bus routes through Hampton and Newport News. The Peninsula routes host about 4 million riders every year, but a phone survey last spring found that 96 percent of the region never used public transportation. The survey included calls to counties with no bus service — like Isle of Wight — but critics say the responses show that the zigzag routes are less than convenient.
HRT does the best it can with the money it gets, said Michael Townes, HRT’s president and chief executive officer. Hampton Roads is the nation’s 31st-largest metropolitan area, the 2000 Census indicated, but the transit system ranks 61st in spending.
“Hampton Roads is a sprawling suburb — 340 square miles in my coverage area in seven cities,” Townes said. “There are parts that are farmland, and our challenge is to provide service to a diverse area … but there are holes.”
Even when the buses run on time, there can be big inconveniences. Bus drivers aren’t allowed to leave their seats when they’re on duty, which can make loading groceries a monumental task.
“We’re kind of blase about ‘just ride the bus,’ but you don’t realize how tough it is,” said Dixon, the Hampton social worker. “It’s quite a trip, especially if you have kids.”
Low-income workers typically look for jobs in restaurants, hotels and factories, where shifts stretch beyond the standard 9-to-5. Those off- hour stints force workers to wait around when buses are less frequent. Sometimes, buses just don’t get there in time, such as when Dixon tried to set up some Hampton residents with jobs at a Canon manufacturing plant in Gloucester. “Buses couldn’t get them there in time for the first shift,” he said, “and the second shift let out too late to catch the bus back.”
In Gloucester and other rural areas, cars are a crucial necessity. Judith Jenkins lives on faith. She says a prayer every morning before turning the ignition in her 1993 Volvo. At a glance, the car looks to be in decent shape, but the engine is crumbling after nearly 150,000 miles, and Jenkins swore that only “God’s glue” held it together.
“We’re riding around on a wing and a prayer,” she said. “When you’re without, you know the fullness of it. You feel helpless.”
Jenkins and her two teenage daughters string together trips to the orthodontist’s office with grocery runs. They take the shortest routes everywhere. They dream of visiting cousins in Manassas, and Norfolk might as well be in a different time zone.
“If it’s further away than Newport News, I’m not going,” Jenkins said. The car finally collapsed less than a week before Christmas. “We’re at the mercy of other folks. It’s really humbling.”
For eight months, Jenkins rode Gloucester’s hybrid bus-taxi service, but she said the carpool style turned her five-minute drive to work into a nearly hourlong ordeal. Gloucester County officials, however, describe the crossbreed transportation service as a godsend that offers flexible and sometimes free rides to rural residents who would be stranded in other areas.
When she did ride Bay Transit, Jenkins sometimes caught the bus two hours before her shift to fit into the transit schedule. “It’s a good system, but it’s too taxed,” she said, noting that it ran only during the workweek and stopped running at 6 p.m. “They’ve got so much ground to cover.”
For many experts, cars are the solution — at least in near future. Margy Waller, another Brookings scholar, tracks about 160 programs across the country that help low-income families buy cars.
Car ownership is a crucial part of getting many low-income workers to jobs increasingly in suburbia because of sprawl. Waller thinks that officials should help working-class people get behind the wheel, as long as the programs require applicants to learn about car care and personal budgeting.
“These same people are deprived every day,” Waller said. “They can’t access the cheaper shopping, the parks, the housing opportunities and the job opportunities.”
But Waller admits that her ideas draw critiques from environmentalists who want to reduce reliance on gasoline, from public-transportation advocates who see the programs as a threat to financing and from others who simply see it as merely a Band-Aid for a long-term problem.
Paying for minor repairs and routine maintenance can be tricky, too, for families that are barely scraping by.
“They get a job, they’re making it just above the poverty line and then their car breaks down,” said Holly Handy, who works for Gloucester social services. “It throws them into a tailspin.” *