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James Baker was pedaling to work along a slick, snow-covered road in Frederick County, Md., when a traffic light changed abruptly. He braked and skidded to the ground, unhurt but making a mess of his clothes before a long day of work and school.
He was on his bicycle that snowy morning last December, about an hour northwest of Washington, because the bus service in Frederick was so erratic. Routes were far apart and the buses often late, making a 30-minute bike ride, whatever the weather, a better option.
His commuting problems highlight a central theme for many low-income people trying to build a better life: A lack of reliable and efficient transportation is often a huge barrier.
In a large, continuing study of upward mobility based at Harvard, commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.
The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community, said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the researchers on the study.
Andrea Zona, James Baker and their 8-month-old, Quinn, at home in Frederick, Md. Credit Matt Roth for The New York Times
The study notes the connection in places with notoriously long commutes and poverty, including Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala.
A separate report focusing on New York, from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, came to a similar conclusion. The study compared neighborhoods by accessibility to mass transit and the number of jobs within an hour’s commute. It found that residents of the areas least well served by mass transit relied on personal vehicles. Areas in the middle third — those with some, but insufficient, access to transportation — had the highest rates of unemployment and the lowest incomes, the study found.
For Mr. Baker and his fiancée, Andrea Zona, the lack of good transportation has been one of the few downsides of moving to Frederick County. He grew up in Washington and moved to the city of Frederick four years ago to study at Hood College, where he met Ms. Zona.