Where A Car Is Key To Survival
In Outer Suburbs, Limited Transportation Options Hinder Workers
By Sewell Chan
The 36-year-old Prince William County resident has been without a car since March, when the alternator on her 1982 Volkswagen quit working. The county's four-route OmniLink bus service does not pass her building, and even if it did, the system's latest buses run about the time she starts her evening shift. She said a back ailment and high blood pressure prevent her from walking the four miles to work, which would take well over an hour each way.
So five days a week, Lambert waits -- sometimes as much as three hours -- for her stepfather, who works later hours at the same supermarket, to drive her back to the apartment they share north of Manassas Park.
For Lambert and thousands of other low-income residents of Washington's outer suburbs who are without cars, even routine daily tasks such as going to work can pose huge challenges. Like Lambert, workers from outer suburbs such as Prince William and Howard County are filling up entry-level retail, distribution and service jobs created by the area's strong economy.
But transit systems have had difficulty keeping up with job growth in some areas. The new suburban bus routes and commuter rail lines that have sprung up in recent years are focused mainly on commuting professionals headed toward Washington, not those who live and work in the outer suburbs and who desperately need transit service.
"You need to have your own transportation to survive around here," Lambert said. "As opposed to :buses being just blocks away: in D.C., it's miles away here. You have to go two, three, four miles to get to wherever you need."
Many, like Lambert, borrow rides from family members. Others turn to fellow churchgoers and friends. Some spend much of their salary on expensive cab rides; still others walk or ride bicycles.
Residents of Washington's inner suburbs who don't have cars also face challenges, but they generally have better access to bus and Metro service than their counterparts in outlying communities.
Outer-suburb residents on the whole still have a much higher rate of auto ownership than those who live in Washington, where the 1990 U.S. Census reported that 37.3 percent of households did not have a car. But transportation analysts say that comparison obscures an emerging population without many options for getting around.
"There's a certain perception that a lot of people who live in these outer counties are there because they want to be," said Ronald Kirby, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "A lot of them are there because the housing's a lot less expensive. They trade off housing and transportation in many cases."
In Prince William, ACTS (Action in the Community Through Service), a nonprofit agency based in Dumfries, has seen its list of people waiting for a donated car grow from 150 to 204 in the last six months, while SERVE (Securing Emergency Resources Through Voluntary Efforts), a nonprofit social service agency in the less-populous western end of the county, has seen its list mushroom from 20 to 48 in the same period. People now getting cars from ACTS have been on the list more than three years. Even when they get cars, however, some of them have trouble meeting insurance and maintenance costs and are sometimes forced to sell them.
In Loudoun County, a county-appointed consulting group urged last month that officials develop a long-term plan to expand rural transit. And private agencies in Howard and Calvert counties are launching programs to refurbish and donate cars to needy workers.
Maria Copeland, 34, is typical of those outer-county residents who struggle to get by without reliable transportation. Before graduating from Northern Virginia Community College's Alexandria campus in May, the Dale City resident missed an important midterm exam in December because the ignition on her 1986 Ford station wagon failed.
"It was really frustrating," she recalled. "I cried many a day about that car." As June approached, Copeland badly needed a way to get to her part-time job as an attendant at a Manassas group home for mentally retarded residents. "I had to pick a choice between my rent and my car," she said. "I chose my car, so now I'm behind in my rent." She spent $300 as a down payment on a new sedan. Others might envy her situation.
Phyllis Summers's job as a dental assistant in Columbia is only about a quarter-hour drive by car, but the late hours she works force her to take a taxicab home each day. She takes a Howard County bus to work, but the last returning bus is at 7 p.m., just as her shift is ending. By the time she finishes sterilizing dental equipment and other duties, there is no bus service home.
The taxi fare, from $8 to $9 a night, costs Summers nearly $200 a month -- "about 50 percent of my paycheck," said Summers, a 32-year-old single mother with four children. Only nine months ago, she moved to Columbia from North Carolina, where, despite the lack of transit, she had friends and family to give her rides. On weekends, a friend picks her up to buy groceries near Ellicott City. "If I didn't have her," Summers said, "I would be in a deeper ditch than I'm in."
Until he broke his right leg in an on-the-job fall in May and was forced to take disability leave, David Johnson, 42, walked nearly eight miles, two days a week, from his home in Triangle to the trucking company in Woodbridge where he works as a driver. "I usually left :home: about 4 in the morning," he said. "I got to work: about 6, 6:15." The local bus doesn't start running until 8:15 a.m. Other mornings, a friend would give him a ride, and in the evenings, a fellow driver would take him home. Johnson, without a car since 1993, is hoping to return to work next month and save enough money to buy a used car -- "whatever's got four wheels, can work, got a good engine. I'm not very choosy right now," he said.
Many workers such as Johnson find that local bus routes do not accommodate their irregular hours or their inexpensive, out-of-the-way homes. Most of Washington's outer suburbs have limited bus services that typically try to serve very different clienteles: commuting professionals, elderly and disabled people, and low-income workers without cars.
The OmniLink service in Prince William, launched in April 1995 by the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, is typical. The service operates along four routes and deviates to pick up customers who phone a day in advance, said Beverly Le Masters, the commission's marketing director.
But the service is geared toward commuters taking trains to Pentagon City and Washington and operates according to their 9 to 5 schedules. And it does not provide direct service between the county's western and eastern hubs. Defenders of existing transit say the outer suburbs do not have the demand to support a more extensive transportation network.
"That's the dilemma of a small community," said Janet McGlynn, executive director of the Urban Rural Transportation Alliance, which provides transit for social service agencies in Howard County. "There's not enough people or density to support transit every minute of the day, into the evenings or into Sundays."
But social service workers say limited hours and routes not only inconvenience low-income workers but also can prevent them from advancing in their jobs. "It takes them out of the running for a huge pool of jobs, because they can't get there from here," said Constantine Bitsas, executive director of Careerscope, a nonprofit job-placement and career-development organization in Columbia that is creating another nonprofit to give donated cars to those who need them.
Lack of transportation forced Stephene Clark, 37, to leave her job as an assistant manager at Play Palace, a children's amusement center in St. Mary's County and to move from her Hollywood home to join her husband's aunt in Dowell in Calvert County.
Clark clearly remembers June 20, the day her 1988 Oldsmobile's head gasket collapsed. She said she felt "finished, completely through, ready to roll up in a ball and give up." Now enrolled in a job-skills class with the county's Bridges to Success initiative, Clark hopes to get a secretarial job in Prince Frederick.
For Lambert, who now is training to become a customer-service manager at the Food Lion, the lack of a car has sharply curbed life outside work. "I have no social life, and I have no friends," she said. "My family is my friend." Lambert, who was raised in Remington, a tiny town in Fauquier County, said she valued the serenity of the outer suburbs. She has no plans to move. But transportation remains her biggest challenge. "It's like I don't have my right arm, and I have to use my left," she said. "It's like a major part of my life missing, not having a vehicle."
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