Low pay and long, pricey commute often go hand in hand

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

September 21, 2015

SEATTLE — Simon Nakhale remembers the night his 20-year-old son, Leo, walked nearly three hours because he had missed the last bus home.

With no money for a cab ride, no family car or friends available to pick him up, Leo followed the map on his smartphone to their home outside Seattle.

"Oh my God, we felt so bad," Nakhale recalls of that late night. "We kept calling him until he got so exhausted, he couldn’t answer."

That incident became one of the reasons the family, which had emigrated from Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of 2013, bought a used car for Nakhale earlier this year and is leasing one for his wife, Gladys Shivambo.

Now they spend about a third of their income on transportation — and his commute to two jobs consumes plenty of time as well.

For about a year, Nakhale, 50, Shivambo, 45, and their four children had relied on the bus to get from their home near Renton, about 10 miles south of downtown Seattle, to their jobs, schools and other places.

By bus, it had taken Nakhale nearly four hours a day to get to and from his job as a bank security guard in Seattle. More recently, when he got a second job as a Federal Express package handler in Auburn, about 12 miles south of Renton, he began driving so he could get between jobs in time.

But even driving, the commute is a slog, taking up about three hours each day.

That long commute, plus the jobs, have "taken away what little time I have with my family," Nakhale says. "The children only see me for one hour, and that’s the time I am eating. I don’t find time to be a father."

Transportation costs and commute times have become an important factor in how income inequality plays out around the Puget Sound region, as those priced out of living close to job centers pay, instead, with their time.

Commutes to work — an endurance sport even for people who drive and work traditional hours — become even more of a hardship for those working odd hours who rely on public transportation, or those cobbling together several jobs.

And the effects spill over to commuters’ families.

Low-income families typically pay a higher percentage of their incomes to commute than their higher-paid counterparts. And commutes use up time that could otherwise be spent with family or on other pursuits.

There’s a further concern that commuting can be stressful — and "stress is related to less beneficial parenting practices," said Heather Hill, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance who studies how children and families are affected by poverty.

But such commute complications are a reality facing more people as soaring housing costs push people out of the urban core and farther away from jobs.


Even as the number of people living in south King County, the home of Seattle, has swelled, the average number of jobs within a typical commute distance for people living there has declined about 2 percent from 2000 to 2013, according to recent findings from the Brookings Institution. Many of south King County’s census tracts had even more severe declines of about 6 to 8 percent. (In contrast, the average number of nearby jobs went up nearly 6 percent in the Seattle area and 9 percent on the Eastside, a collection of near suburbs.)

In the Fairwood area where Nakhale and his family live, the number of jobs within a typical commute distance — which Brookings puts at 9.5 miles for the Seattle area — declined nearly 6 percent during those years.

Many of the "livable wage jobs, if they are even livable, are clearly not in south King County," said Mike Heinisch, longtime executive director of Kent Youth and Family Services. "They’re in Seattle. And with the minimum-wage law in Seattle, that’s probably more of a magnet in people’s minds to get a job there."

The difficulty, Heinisch said, is that people living at or below the median poverty level often work odd hours, for instance starting at 4 or 5 a.m. changing linens at a hotel, or working late into the night at a restaurant. Or workers might not find out the hours they’re working that week until shortly before they’re supposed to start.

"All that conspires to make it more difficult" for low-income workers in south King County who rely on public transportation, said Heinisch, who’s heard stories over the years about people losing or having to change jobs when a bus route changes.

And for low-income workers who drive, the cars they own might be older and more likely to need repairs and maintenance, Heinisch said. Or, if they don’t have enough for a down payment on a newer car or lack a good credit score, they may end up leasing or agreeing to a loan that ends up being costlier than the norm.

"It’s expensive to be poor," Heinisch said.



The cost of commuting has been weighing on Nakhale’s mind a lot these days.

A tall man with a beaming smile and a regal bearing who was a former soldier and trombone player with the Kenyan Army Band, Nakhale remembers how, in Nairobi, public transportation was available 24 hours a day, from buses to minibuses, vans to taxis.

The Seattle area "needs to borrow a leaf from Nairobi," he says with a laugh.

The long commute was already bothering him back when he was taking a bus to his $11.50-an-hour job as a security guard in downtown Seattle and the city’s West Seattle area.

Many days, he would spend up to four hours commuting. On Fridays, when he would have to transfer between three buses in the evening, with long waits in between each leg, he could spend some five hours commuting.

While the bus rides gave him time to use his tablet to tap out his life story — something he wants to preserve and pass down to his children — it also ate up time he could be spending with his wife and children, ages 10 to 20.

Now, even though he’s driving, between his commute and jobs, he barely has time to catch a glimpse of his family.


His workdays begin at night.

On most days, he gets up at 1:40 a.m., leaving the house by 2:25 a.m. to drive his 2004 Honda Pilot 25 minutes to a FedEx facility in Auburn, where he earns $12.50 an hour. (On some days, when his shift starts an hour earlier, he wakes at 12:40 a.m.)

After his shift ends at 6:40 a.m., he drives home for a quick freshening-up. Then, at 7:30 a.m., a neighbor usually comes over and they drive together for about 55 minutes to downtown Seattle. (A new driver, Nakhale prefers that his neighbor drives his car on this leg of the commute. If Nakhale is working in West Seattle that day, he drops his neighbor off in downtown Seattle and proceeds to West Seattle himself — about a 20-minute drive.)

It’s not until 5 p.m. on most days that his shift at the bank ends, he meets his neighbor (driving to downtown to do so if he’s been working in West Seattle), and they make the drive home. Once home, at about 6:25 p.m. or 6:45 p.m., depending on the day, Nakhale eats a quick meal and heads to bed by 7:30 p.m. so he can repeat the cycle the next day.


"If I found jobs closer to home, it would save me an hour a day of driving, at least. I’ve missed so many things," said Nakhale, who felt most sad recently about missing a concert in which his 13-year-old son, Clive, played trumpet with his school band. "The father-child thing — I don’t have that now."

It’s up to Nakhale’s wife, Shivambo, to attend most of the children’s activities and school meetings — something that she quickly realized she would need a car for, because public transit didn’t go to her kids’ schools at the times she needed.

Errands, including shopping for food and supplies for their family of six, were also tough to do by bus.

If the family had only one car, and Nakhale drives it to work, "how can I run errands?" said Shivambo, who was an elementary school teacher back in Nairobi.

So in March, the family started paying $447 a month for Shivambo to lease a new Toyota Scion — a relatively high price because of the family’s lack of credit history, Nakhale said.

They’ve found the cars invaluable for everything from simply finding jobs — Nakhale missed a job interview once because his bus arrived late — to making sure their kids can make it to after-school activities. Their son, Clive, once missed playing in a required school concert because they didn’t have cars at the time and the bus wasn’t running to the school at that hour.

But now, to afford two cars, they’re going to have to pay with even more of their time.

Shivambo had been relatively lucky, finding within walking distance of home a $13-an-hour job at a local day-care center, where she now works full time starting at 6 a.m.

Her paycheck goes toward her car costs, food and a portion of the rent. Her husband’s paycheck goes toward the rest of the rent, utilities, his and Leo’s transportation costs, and money owed to help pay for their move to the U.S.

And still, it’s not enough. Shivambo is now looking for a second job.