With equity in mind, pilot transit project seeks to connect workers to jobs in region

Getting to and from work is a routine that many people might take for granted, especially for those who own a car. For others, access to a car is a luxury, and finding a way to get to a job or interview for an opening can be challenging.

Curious Campus, UWM’s podcast about science, discovery and culture

On this episode of Curious Campus, UWM’s new podcast about science, discovery and culture, we talk to two urban planners about FlexRide Milwaukee, a pilot transportation project that hopes to help address this problem.

FlexRide Milwaukee is funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The project is testing a new way to connect workers from Milwaukee, including three segregated neighborhoods on the north or northwest sides of the city, to places of employment in Butler and Menomonee Falls. This, in turn, could give employers in those areas a new way to attract and retain workers.

Our guests are Lingqian “Ivy” Hu, professor and chair of the urban planning department at UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Kevin Muhs, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

Organizers are planning a formal launch event on March 9. To hear more about the project, listen to this week’s episode.

As an urban planner, why is this project important to you?

Lingqian “Ivy” Hu

Hu: We know in our region that a lot of people lack access to those essential opportunities or those essential services. Unfortunately, one reason for that lack of access is housing market segregation. We can easily picture that residents living in segregated neighborhoods do not have sufficient numbers of well-paying jobs in their neighborhoods or within their reach.

It’s a barrier for them if they have to travel a long distance or they have to pay a high fare to get to suburban jobs. Without jobs, or good prospects for jobs, it’s difficult for them to improve their economic condition. Unfortunately, Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the country.

One solution – and the solution is not perfect – but the solution is efficient and affordable transportation service that connects residents of segregated neighborhoods to jobs in suburban communities.

What is “microtransit” service and how is it being used here?

Hu: In this situation, I place my faith in integrating new transportation technologies that hopefully can solve the job access problem. This is a “microtransit” service that is on-demand and responsive to people’s needs. It could be more cost-efficient than conventional transit service, since it uses smaller vehicles, and the route and service (schedule) can be dynamically adjusted based on demands.

If the test is successful, then integrating this new technology can hopefully solve our problems through public-private partnership or a different mechanism.

Why is this important to the planning commission?

Kevin Muhs

Muhs: We’ve been dealing with an issue in the region that’s really two sides of the same coin. On one side, people generally living within the city of Milwaukee, with a high concentration of unemployed and underemployed people there not being able to drive, not wanting to drive or not being able to afford a car, who are not able to access jobs where a substantial amount of the job growth is occurring in the region, which is in the suburbs.

The flip side is that employers in those areas have been, for probably at least five years now, struggling to find enough workers. Employers are also telling us that they could do more business, produce more goods, sell more product, and bring more resources and wealth to the region if they could find more people to hire. Connecting those things, with the equity focus that Ivy described, is very consistent with our goals as an agency, and with our recommendations and long-range plans.

What are some of the issues facing planners in addressing transportation needs in southeastern Wisconsin?

Muhs: What we face in our region isn’t necessarily a lack of interest in partnering among different units of government. What’s going on is we don’t have a regional transit agency or authority, so there’s no entity across southeastern Wisconsin whose job is to solve this problem across county lines and across municipal lines.

And on top of it, even if many of those units of government wanted to get together and solve this problem – and many of them do – because of state restrictions on raising revenue for local governments, there’s no money. In southeastern Wisconsin – and this is really a statewide issue – if a unit of government wanted to start a service or enhance a service, they have to decide what else to cut out of their budget. It’s much easier to protect existing services, of course, than it is to cut them for something new, unknown and unproven, like this is.

That’s why the opportunity of this grant is really great because the risk is so much lower for those of us locally to try something, and then hopefully show that it’s successful and then try to gather resources from many different sources to fund it long term.

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