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Want to generate economic growth? If you’re in the Midwest, start with transit.

  •   4 min read

Governments and agencies can stimulate development and show up for shift workers by investing in smart, flexible transit service.

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In the midst of a pandemic that has devastated local economies, any news is good news when it comes to economic development. That’s why city leaders across the Midwest are cheering recent increases in hiring that have come as a result of skyrocketing online shopping.

More e-commerce means more jobs in manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, and other adjacent sectors. Not coincidentally, these jobs appeal to people living in many of the same communities struggling with higher unemployment because of COVID-19. At first glance, it seems like a perfect fit and a recipe for economic growth as more people return to work.

Many rail and bus lines were designed to move people to and from high-density areas — typically between the center of a city and the suburbs. Naturally, they don’t provide the same coverage in much less densely-populated outlying areas.

Unfortunately, there is a catch: Transportation. Facilities doing the hiring are located in industrial parks and other areas that are not directly connected to public transit, which is a serious hurdle for the people who need these jobs the most.

So how are communities responding to and capturing opportunities for economic development? By thinking more creatively about the nature of public transportation.

Why public transit falls short.

To understand how and why new transit solutions can help solve this issue, it’s important to understand why current public transit systems have trouble meeting needs in the first place.

In some ways, the problem exists because public transportation systems evolve slower than the cities they serve. Many rail and bus lines were designed to move people to and from high-density areas — typically between the center of a city and the suburbs. Naturally, they don’t provide the same coverage in much less densely-populated outlying areas.

For lower-income workers who rely on public transit to get to work in industrial areas, this creates a very challenging situation. They can use public transit to get close to their new jobs, but are left to manage the last few miles on their own. Walking is always an option, but one that is simultaneously time-consuming, exhausting (who wants to show up to work already tired?), and unsafe depending on time of day and weather.

While it’s true that some cities have express bus routes into industrial areas, they typically run from 8am to 5pm, which is not helpful for shift workers — especially those working overnight. Of course, these were the routes first to be cut when the pandemic arrived and ridership plummeted.

But there is some good news: Newer, more flexible transit options have proven extremely adept at filling in these service gaps, improving transit equity for lower-income employees, and paving the way for an economic revival.

Transportation increases economic development.

Investing in public transit spurs growth precisely because it helps workers get to jobs more easily. As the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Economic Impact of Public Transportation Investment 2020 Update puts it:

“Increased investment in public transportation can lead to significant economic growth as a result of both the short-term stimulus impact of public transportation outlays and a longer-term, cumulative impact on economic productivity.” 

Sustaining these investments for 20 years, the APTA report adds, would create an impact of approximately $5 billion of additional GDP for every $1 billion invested annually.

So why aren’t these investments being made? Because large public transit projects, such as extensive bus routes or light rail, are still expensive line items for cash-strapped cities to justify.

In 2016, Amazon was staffing more than 1,500 people at fulfillment centers in Carlisle, Penn. While these jobs were paying twice the minimum wage, Amazon struggled to keep positions filled because getting there with public transit was too challenging for employees.

In response, Amazon gathered data about its workers and provided it to the Capital Area Transit (CAT) system. The data — along with Amazon’s promise to purchase passes in bulk — allowed CAT to reroute four bus lines to better serve clusters of Amazon workers in Harrisburg and another suburb. Route schedules were changed to align with shift schedules at the fulfillment centers as well.

What some Midwestern communities are discovering, however, is that there are other less expensive and easier options that don’t require the budget and resources of a multinational tech company to implement. Launching an on-demand public transit network — also known as microtransit — can be completed in just a few weeks, if necessary.

The future of transit.

Microtransit doesn’t require new train routes or expensive vehicles. It applies dynamic, on-demand scheduling of ridesharing to a range of fleet types, allowing riders to request pickup through an app. Behind the scenes, an algorithm manages routing so multiple people can share the ride.

On-demand transit can also be more efficient than traditional public transit, particularly in areas where demand shifts throughout the day. It can shuttle passengers to and from their jobs in safe, shared vehicles based on the volume of riders and the time of day. The solution is highly customizable and can be tailored to the community’s needs.

Bedford Park, Ill., an industrial suburb of Chicago, is a place that’s experiencing a boom in new e-commerce facilities, but where employees without cars faced long commutes involving several buses or trains plus a long walk. Workers were often late, and companies couldn’t grow because they lacked a consistent labor force.

To solve the problem, Bedford Park teamed up with mobility and technology partners like Via and Uber to develop a versatile first-and-last mile pilot program called Connect2Work. This program gives Bedford Park employees multiple ways to bridge the gap between public transit and their jobs, including late-night and on-demand microtransit services, as well as a first-in-the-region mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) app to connect commuters to their travel mode of choice. MaaS is an integrated system that allows planning, booking, and paying for multiple types of public and private transit options — all within one singular platform.

Programs like these demonstrate just how easy it can be to choose more flexible public transit solutions that do not require huge budgets, corporate buy-in, or multi-year implementation plans. And the expected boost in economic development could help communities do even more to address transit equity while improving public transit for all.

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