Getting to Work in Spite of the Odds: Commuting Patterns of African Americans in Rochester and Buffalo, New York

Article excerpt

Differences in the residential, employment, and household characteristics of African Americans and European Americans are well documented, but racial differences in the journey to work are still not well known. Compared to the past, there are now more studies about the commuting behavior of African Americans, but the specific impact of the exodus of jobs to suburban locations on African American men and women who live in inner cities is still understudied. One study of Buffalo, NY examined racial differences in commuting, but it focused only on women (Johnston-Anumonwo 1995). In a follow-up study, men were included in the analysis (Johnston-Anumonwo, 1997), but both sets of inquiries concentrated on employment characteristics and ignored household characteristics which are likely to feature significantly for female workers.

The purpose of the present study is to examine the question of racial differences in locational access to jobs in Rochester, NY and draw parallels with the previous findings for Buffalo, NY. While presenting new data for Rochester, the study retains the critical inquiry on whether suburban employment imposes longer commute times on African Americans than on European Americans, but extends the inquiry to see if presence of children in the home affects workers' commute lengths. The results for Rochester strongly complement those for Buffalo and are consistent with the spatial mismatch hypothesis, which posited that African Americans suffer from distant suburban employment.

Following a review of the background literature of the journey to work for African Americans, a brief description of the study areas and data is provided, and then the findings are presented. The study's findings highlight the fact that African American men, and especially women, endure relatively long commutes to get to work in spite of transportation, locational and socioeconomic hindrances.


Inquiries about racial disparities in employment accessibility are central to the spatial mismatch hypothesis (Kain, 1968). When it was first proposed in the 1960s, the hypothesis emphasized that employment opportunities are expanding in suburban locations, but because of continuing segregation of Blacks in inner cities, there exists a spatial mismatch, such that Black inner city residents face difficulties in reaching the growing job opportunities in suburbs (see Holzer, 1991 for a review). There has been little change in the residential segregation of Blacks between 1960s and now (Darden, 1990; Denton, 1994; Massey and Hajnal, 1995). This is true for the two Upstate New York counties selected for this study: Monroe County and Erie County (with Rochester and Buffalo as their respective central cities). Monroe County was 4.1 percent black in 1960 and 10.1 percent black in 1980, but 97.5 percent of the county's Black population in 1960 lived in the Rochester central city and in 1980, 87.7 percent did. A similar and even sharper pattern of disproportionate representation of Blacks in the central city prevails in Erie County. Erie County was 7 percent black in 1960 and 10.1 percent black in 1980 with 94.7 percent and 92.4 percent of the Black population respectively living in the central city in both time periods (U.S. Dept. of Commerce, 1963; 1983a; 1883b).

Early research on the effect of the exodus of jobs to suburban locations on the workplace accessibility of inner city African Americans rarely included female workers even though African American women have historically had high levels of labor force participation. Studies on the journey to work of female workers highlight two key trends. First, Black women have longer travel times than White women. Second, unlike White women who typically have shorter commutes than White men, the journey-to-work time of Black women are generally as long as those of Black men. For example, McLafferty and Preston (1991) report that in 1980, African American women in metropolitan New York spend 10 minutes longer on the average for their home-to-work trip than European American women. …


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