Business, government leaders laud launch of FlexRide project

A new service led by UWM researchers that connects workers with jobs is very much needed, local leaders said Wednesday.

Craig Armstrong, president of Scan-Pac Manufacturing in Menomonee Falls, said some of his employees occasionally have transportation challenges, and have to turn to friends or family members to give them a ride. As a result, they may have to arrive two hours early or wait two hours at the end of their shift for a ride, he said. Although the company helps out with Ubers and taxis, the lack of transportation is an issue for their business, not just in attracting new employees but also in helping existing workers, he said.

“As an employer, we feel we really have to engage in removing some of the barriers to job opportunities,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong was one of the speakers at the formal launch of FlexRide Milwaukee, held Wednesday morning at Sherman Phoenix.

Filling a need for workers and employers

FlexRide Milwaukee, funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Southeastern  Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, is testing new ways of connecting workers from Milwaukee neighborhoods to jobs in suburban Menomonee Falls and Butler. Lingqian “Ivy” Hu, professor and chair of the urban planning department at UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, is principal investigator and leads the pilot project.

FlexRide launched the second week of February, with shuttles picking up adult Milwaukee residents from one of five sites (all on existing bus routes) in and around the city’s north and northwest sides, and dropping them at any employer in the service areas within Menomonee Falls and Butler. So far 15 employers in these areas have signed up.

Chia Vang, UWM’s vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion, highlighted some of the numbers that show the need to connect unemployed city residents with suburban employers who have jobs to fill.

“Need and deserve efficient and affordable transportation”

Among the nearly 130 participants eligible to use FlexRide so far, 74% are unemployed, 75% are Black, 60% are women and 56% live in very high poverty situations (less than $1,500 per month in income) and 80% do not have working vehicles.

“These community members need and deserve efficient and affordable transportation,” Vang said. “The team brings a new, innovative form of transportation technology – on-demand micro-transit – to serve these community members.”

FlexRide is designed to be accessible to all riders – including those with disabilities, those without a smartphone and those without a credit or debit card, Vang added.

Partnerships and collaboration

Speakers at the launch event emphasized the public-private partnerships and regional collaboration involved in testing the flexible ride program and the economic and equity benefits.

In addition to the UWM team and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, other project partners include the Milwaukee County Transit System, Employ Milwaukee, the Waukesha-Ozaukee-Washington Workforce Development Board, Waukesha County Business Alliance, Waukesha County Center for Growth and MobiliSE.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said one way of ending the area’s reputation of hypersegregation is to expand mobility, connecting residents to job opportunities that exist beyond residents’ neighborhoods. In addition, improved transit will make it easier to recover from the pandemic, Crowley said.

The Milwaukee Public Transit System serves 150,000 riders daily, but adding flexible options can help close some existing gaps, noted Dave Steele, executive director of MobiliSE. “We have a strong transit system, but without a car, many people are cut off from job opportunities.”

Closing the last mile

Several speakers mentioned the “first and last mile” issue – the first mile from home and the last mile to the job, which are often the most difficult to serve. “By closing these gaps, we can expand transportation, giving people the opportunity to focus on their own economic upward mobility,” Crowley said.

Speakers emphasized that transit is the not the only issue contributing to the imbalance between unemployed workers and the employers who need them, but it is one critical component.

Milwaukee Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson said that it is also important to bring employers to the city as well as providing transportation flexibility so residents can find family-supporting work, establish careers and build wealth. “We have challenges with transportation in our region, but FlexRide represents the hope we can move forward to a better day.”

The FlexRide system uses smaller vehicles and allows for changes to the route and service schedule to meet riders’ needs, and based on rider feedback. For example, the system recently expanded its hours (4:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.) to accommodate workers on different shifts.

UWM integral

Vang noted that UWM’s team was integral to the effort to launch the pilot project. In addition to Hu, the UWM team includes Bob Schneider, professor of urban planning, Yaidi Cancel Martinez, researcher for the Center for Economic Development, and UWM students Grace Gent, Amber Wycklendt, TC [Tathagato] Chakraborty) and Elijah Hart.

FlexRide Milwaukee is an example of UWM’s contribution to the communities – advancing a more equitable and inclusive society, Vang said.

“As we know with research, we are constantly learning, experimenting and improving our work.” The federal research funding allows UWM to provide robust research results that inform future, permanent services that connect workers with jobs, she said.”

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