LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. If you're fighting traffic today, it may be all that holiday mall traffic. But next week, it is back to work and for a lot of folks, that will mean commuting more than an hour. Many of the longest commutes are at least partially on public transportation. The people with the toughest commutes often live far from their jobs but can't afford a car, and have to rely exclusively on public transit.

NPR's David Schaper has our latest commuting story.

SARAH HAIRSTON: It's 4 o'clock in the morning, and I am headed to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: This is Sarah Hairston, a 25-year-old graduate student, leaving her apartment on Chicago's South Side at what some would consider an ungodly hour, to begin her trek to her part-time job at a shelter for homeless teens on the north side of town. The first leg of her trip is walking to a bus stop a few blocks away, in hopes of catching a bus to the L.

HAIRSTON: Everything is up in the air - that first trip - so sometimes, I'll be able to get on a bus right away and get to my next - get on the Green Line.

SCHAPER: But if Hairston misses the bus to that early train or if the bus is late, she'll turn to plan B: walking a few blocks more to a different L station, where she'll have to wait 20 to 30 minutes for the next train. Or, she defaults to plan C: walking to a different bus stop, to take her to yet another train.

HAIRSTON: So I get on a bus, and I get to the train; and I wait. And then I take the train up to the Red Line, up to the loop; and I wait.

SCHAPER: In fact, Hairston spends almost as much time waiting outside in Chicago's sometimes brutal weather as she does riding, all while navigating a complicated public transit puzzle.

HAIRSTON: If I'm lucky, I'll get to work. Or I'll get off the stop at 5:45, and have enough time to go grab coffee and walk into work at 6.

SCHAPER: That's right - it's a two-hour commute to go 15 miles to work a four-hour shift at the shelter. If she could afford a car, Hairston says the drive to the shelter would take her just 20 minutes.

Hairston has a second part-time job on weekends, doing administrative work at a church. That commute is even longer. But she needs to live near her graduate school, where the rent is cheap and she takes evening classes. So it's just a short walk home at the end of the day. What helps her get through it, is knowing it's somewhat temporary - and that it could be worse.

HAIRSTON: I know there are people who have to make multiple buses just to get to a train, to get another train, to get to another bus.

SCOTT BERNSTEIN: We're seeing more and more people fit into that category.

SCHAPER: Scott Bernstein is president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works nationally to promote sustainable communities. He says increasingly, there are fewer jobs available in or near the communities where lower-income workers tend to live.

BERNSTEIN: Too often, the only jobs that may be available do require that stretch commute. And we're not spending anything on providing stretch-commute services.

SCHAPER: Bernstein says bigger cities - such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco - have pretty substantial public transit systems that are accessible to most residents of the lowest-income communities but...

BERNSTEIN: We've had 50-plus years of job movement, out from the center to the edge. We're still managing our transit systems as if most of the jobs are located in the central city.

SCHAPER: And in many cities - such as Memphis, Atlanta and others - Bernstein says the transit systems are far too inadequate.

BERNSTEIN: You know, we're really good, as a country, at figuring out how to move a container of freight around. It's called freight logistics. I think we need passenger logistics services here.

SCHAPER: The good news, Bernstein says, is that urban planners, elected officials and even employers themselves are beginning to recognize the insanity many in the workforce have in getting to their jobs. He says they're taking a fresh look at how to better provide services.

BERNSTEIN: Car sharing and bike sharing and dedicated van pools; employers taking on direct responsibility to put extra subsidy into transit routes, to get the frequency of service that they need - these things are happening all over the place.

SCHAPER: Still, Bernstein and other transportation policy experts say such changes aren't happening as fast as the jobs are moving away from where many lower-income workers live. And funding for public transportation continues to be scarce.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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