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Milwaukee’s bus service offers jobs lifeline

First publishedin ITS International
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JobLines: an economic impact study showed that employers on the routes were concerned about the project's closure
A bus-to-jobs project in Milwaukee provides a useful service for low-paid workers. A new report shows the economic impact of potential closure on local employers - and demonstrates the importance of public transit networks for disadvantaged communities

The city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has a problem. Getting people into out-of-town districts for work is an engine of economic growth, but it costs money. The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus routes 6 and 61 - also known as JobLines - provide access to suburban job locations for residents of inner-city Milwaukee neighbourhoods for just this purpose. Getting people, who are often from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, into steady, reasonably-paid work depends on a number of factors. High up on the list of these is transport: if you can’t get to work, then it doesn’t matter how good the opportunity is. Established three years ago, the two bus routes connect the centre of the city to Waukesha and Washington counties.

Around 900 riders use JobLines every day. An advert for the service is a clear indication of the pressures that exist in many urban areas – and not just in North America: “Are you looking for a better paying job? Transportation you can count on? Don’t give up”.

Until recently, the continuation of the routes was under threat – and even now, it only has money until the end of summer next year. JobLines is a joint initiative by MCTS, Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin (BHCW) and Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) – the latter two of which filed a lawsuit (see box, Why JobLines?) which led to the setting up of JobLines.

Cash allocated

The funding had been set to expire at the end of 2018, which would have seen the routes abandoned – until a vote in October which saw cash allocated up to August 2019. As a recent economic impact study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development (CED) showed, the knock-on effects of closure to the local economy would be significant.

An Analysis of Milwaukee County Transit Service Routes 6 and 61 found that nearly 700 businesses with 15,000 jobs in New Berlin, Menomonee Falls and Germantown depend on access to their only available bus service. About 72% of JobLines riders rely on the routes for work and for shopping in Waukesha, for instance. A decision to put those companies and roles beyond the reach of the regional transit system would leave problems in its wake.

The research was authored by Joel Rast, associate professor of political science and urban studies and director of the CED. Lisa Heuler Williams led the survey and interview teams, and Catherine Madison did the GIS, mapping and data analysis. MCTS shared data for the study.

CED’s role was not to advocate the continuation of these bus routes – nor to assemble evidence with which to make the strongest case for them. Rather, it was to produce a “straightforward, impartial evaluation that others may use in the decision-making processes that will ultimately determine the fate of the JobLines bus routes”.

Its findings are instructive. Passengers on routes 6 and 61 are, for the most part, African-American residents of low- to moderate-income areas of Milwaukee’s West Side: “Most are using the bus to get to and from a job, and most are heavily reliant on public transit, either because they have no access to a car or because they do not have a valid driver’s licence”.

The inner-city neighbourhoods served by routes 6 and 61 “include the most economically disadvantaged areas of the city, as well as the city’s most racially segregated areas”. Employment rates in these areas are more than 20 points below that of the Milwaukee metro area as a whole, the study points out.

Labour shortages

So, these are communities in need. But employers located along routes 6 and 61 need the service too: they are facing “significant labour shortages”, the study goes on. Most employers interviewed for this study saw the JobLines as beneficial, “either because their employees were presently using the service or because it was a way of enlarging their pool of job applicants”.

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As many as 70% of one company’s workers lived in Milwaukee, with the lowest proportion being around 10% at another firm. Most companies reported that roughly half of their workers live in the city. But every company except one said that finding workers was a problem which seemed to be getting worse.

One respondent said this is “probably one of our top business issues. We always have openings. It’s frustrating”.  A relatively strong economy and low unemployment rates mean that there is stiff competition: “There’s a lot of employers looking to hire people,” said another respondent.

One large retailer on route 61 said that positions at the bottom of the ladder were becoming increasingly difficult to fill: “There are more people who go directly to further education out of high school. This means there are fewer who apply for these entry-level positions.”

Recruitment role

A number of respondents emphasised that the transit service played a key role in the recruitment of workers. One business on route 6, which recruits at job fairs in Milwaukee, said the “most common question asked by prospective applicants is about the availability of public transit”.

The company says the importance of the bus service has been growing over time. “This is due partly to the fact that many employees who ride the bus serve as informal recruiters for new employees, most of whom also commute by bus,” the report notes.

There was broadly more support from companies along route 61, as opposed to route 6. Either way, closure would have meant many people being forced to quit their jobs – despite wanting to be in gainful employment - because they had no way of getting to work, and employers scrambling to fill positions in areas where local recruitment has proved difficult.

While the majority of commuters are earning more than $10 per hour, a ‘significant number’ are earning less than that. Many are commuting long distances, spending upwards of 90 minutes on the bus each day getting to and from work. While many are earning low wages, “most respondents appeared to be highly motivated to keep their positions, and many expressed alarm at the possibility that they might soon have no way to get to work”, the report found.

Milwaukee JobLines: the future

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development report makes several recommendations:

- There is a pressing need for better transit links between Milwaukee’s inner city and outlying suburbs.

- Careful consideration should be given to the configuration of these routes, especially route 6, “to be sure that the buses serve those locations where the greatest number of passengers want to go”. It may be possible to shorten bus routes while disadvantaging few - if any - passengers, the report continues. This would cut commuting times to more heavily-visited destinations.

- The report also urges “careful consultation” with employers in any reconfiguration and rescheduling of bus routes. The decision-making process needs to be informed by such data as shift times and demand for bus services - perhaps obtained through surveys, interviews or focus groups. “The relatively low ridership numbers on route 6 suggest that more meaningful co-ordination with employers will be especially crucial if this bus line is to remain viable,” the report states.

- The final recommendation of the report is to consider incorporating JobLines into plans for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in order to “provide quicker and more direct transit service between the city of Milwaukee and surrounding suburbs”. Some areas presently served by JobLines might be more efficiently served by BRT.

Why JobLines?

The JobLines bus routes were established in 2015 as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT). The groups said that planning for WisDOT’s Zoo Interchange highway reconstruction project did not consider the transportation needs of economically disadvantaged residents, including minority populations. As part of a settlement reached in May 2014, WisDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) agreed to provide temporary funding for new bus routes 6 and 61. The court settlement allocated more than $13 million for public transportation to job sites that were difficult for many city workers to access. Several advocacy groups sued the state of Wisconsin over the lack of access to public transportation in 2012.

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