Grueling Commutes Hamper Employment for Thousands in DC Area

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Renee Scarlett and Marty Schwartz  (photo by Armando Trull/WAMU)

(Washington, DC -- Armando Trull, WAMU) It's early morning at Renee Scarlett's red brick row house house in Hyattsville. The single mom has just said goodbye to three-year-old twins Jayden and Amani. Her two other children, Anthony, 8, and Marquis, 10, were packed off to school just a few minutes ago.

Up until recently, this would have been the time that Renee embarked on her 2.5 hour commute to work in Gaithersburg on foot, then on Metro, and finally on a bus.

"Yes, that's how I had to take care of my family," Scarlett says.

There are 195,000 households without a car in D.C.; of those, there are 7,000 for whom that status makes it difficult to get and keep a job, according to a Brookings Institution study published last year. The nonprofit Vehicles for Change is trying to combat this problem — they helped Scarlett get her own vehicle last year — and today they will introduce community leaders to her and other families with similarly daunting transportation challenges.

For Scarlett, the breaking point came when her employer, Peapod, moved 22 miles away to Hanover, Md. It might as well have been to the moon, given Hanover's lack of public transportation options.

"I wouldn't have had any public transportation, and I would have been forced to resign my position," Scarlett says.

Then, she got a helping hand from Vehicles for Change. They helped her purchase a 2000 Chrysler SUV for just $750. It came with a 6-month, 6,000-mile warranty.

"It's all about getting families like Renee's to and from employment," says Marty Schwartz, the president of Vehicles for Change. "We have families in the region who are trying to do the right thing … but without a vehicle you can't even do daily chores, let alone get to and from work, even with good public transportation."

Today's event, called 'Walk in Their Shoes,' is designed to help community leaders better understand the transportation challenges of many in the D.C. area.