WASHINGTON — Remember the Detroit man who walked 21 miles to work?
James Robertson's arduous daily journey back and forth to a low-wage factory job, widely reported last month, is just an extreme version of an increasingly common problem: Finding a job near home is getting harder for millions of American workers. And long commutes are especially tough on the poor and on blacks and Hispanics.
A Brookings Institution report out Tuesday finds the number of jobs within typical commuting range dropped 7 percent between 2000 and 2012 in major U.S. metropolitan areas.
Metro jobs near poor people, many of whom cannot afford cars, fell 17 percent, versus a 6 percent drop for those who weren't poor. Jobs near Hispanics fell 17 percent, and those near blacks dropped 14 percent.
Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes of Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program used U.S. Census Bureau data for 96 big metro areas to find how many jobs were available within each area's median commuting distance — a figure that ranged from 12.8 miles in Atlanta to 4.7 miles in Stockton, California.
For years, analysts and policymakers have worried that jobs were moving to the suburbs and away from the inner-city poor. Kneebone and Holmes found something new: Jobs and people of all incomes and races are moving from densely populated urban neighborhoods to the sprawling suburbs. As they do, the distance between people and jobs expands.
Increasing sprawl means that nearby jobs can fall even when overall jobs increase. Jobs in Phoenix and its suburbs, for example, grew almost 11 percent from 2000 to 2012. But jobs within the typical commuting range fell nearly 17 percent over the same period.
"People in the suburbs need to get to jobs in other suburbs," Kneebone said.
Just 29 of the 96 metro areas enjoyed a hike in jobs within commuting range from 2000 to 2012. Nearby jobs rose nearly 58 percent in McAllen, Texas, and nearly 23 percent in Bakersfield, California. Cleveland (down nearly 27 percent) and Detroit (down almost 26 percent) had the biggest drops in jobs within typical commuting distance. Those metro areas also lost jobs overall.
Kneebone and Holmes recommend that communities within metro areas work together to make sure low-income workers can find and pay for public transportation to take them to distant jobs. They note, for example, that King County, Washington, which includes Seattle and its suburbs, is offering discounted public transit fares to low-income residents.
For now, many of the poor struggle to get to work. Harold Carnes, 57, of Las Vegas says he can't afford to take the bus to his $8.75-an-hour job at McDonald's. So he rides a bicycle 2 ½ miles each way, sometimes in temperatures that top 100 degrees. It used to be worse. He was walking to work until the pastor at his church learned of his daily trek and gave him an old bicycle.
Detroit's Robertson, 56, got luckier. As the news of his 21-mile daily walk went global, donations poured in from sympathetic people, including a local auto dealer who gave him a new Ford Taurus.