Ohio’s Paradox Prize projects offer public transit solutions

Adopting public transit options can help employers recruit and retain workers, while promoting fairness and reducing some greenhouse gas emissions. This approach helped Laketran, the regional transportation system for Lake County in Ohio, take top honors in June at a program celebrating Paradox Award winners.

Launched in 2019 by the Cleveland-based Fund for Our Economic Future, the Paradox Prize aims to solve the “No car, no job; no job, no car.

Cleveland, like most American cities, is heavily dependent on the car, in part because of housing and land-use planning policies that have encouraged suburban sprawl while neglecting urban neighborhoods where jobs and housing were once closer. Getting to jobs in the outer suburbs via public transport – if possible at all – can require multiple transfers, adding hours to commutes.

This creates an additional burden on low-wage workers and results in higher per capita emissions than denser cities elsewhere. Black residents, who are both less likely to have access to cars and more likely to be harmed by tailpipe pollution, bear the brunt of this disparity. Patterns of segregation that began with historic redlining continue in Cleveland and elsewhere in Ohio.

Other urban areas in northeast Ohio have similar issues on a smaller scale. And rural areas typically have few public transit options, especially for people working shifts that start earlier or last longer than 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“Transportation is everyone’s business,” said Bethia Burke, President of the Fund for Our Economic Future. “Improving job access for the more than 4 million people who call northeast Ohio home is imperative for anyone working toward a more equitable economy.”

Laketran’s initial $75,000 grant launched Transit GO, which allows Lake County employers to provide free transportation to workers on multiple local routes. The program has helped about 400 workers earning an average of $12 per hour at 175 employers. A $25,000 bonus from the Paradox Prize and an additional grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation provided more funding.

Laketran’s local tax levy will continue the program beyond its pilot phase. Laketran will also expand weekday service to begin at 5 a.m. and end at 9 p.m. to accommodate more shifts.

Transit GO financially assists employees, although there are no income thresholds. “If you can get to work for free, that allows you to use the money you have for other things, like food and groceries and all the other things we need in our lives,” said said Laketran CEO Ben Capelle.

“This program also helps introduce people to public transit who might not have heard of it before,” Capelle said. “And, more importantly, employers can use it as a selling point for why you should work for them.”

Meanwhile, Cuyahoga County’s MetroHealth System used part of its Paradox Award funding to provide free monthly passes for frontline workers, teach people how to use public transportation and offer incentives to use public transport and other means of transport. Employees who don’t get free passes can use the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s Commuter Advantage program, which allows them to purchase monthly passes with pretax dollars.

Without the program, Mike Baleski, a retail food service assistant, said it would have been harder to get monthly passes, especially when the pandemic temporarily closed his local library branch. Plus, the program “saved me a lot of money,” he said.

“Subway[Health] cares about and supports the way we get down to business,” said Facilities Management Specialist Karen Walker. She particularly appreciated the help with logistics as her personal physical mobility situation has changed. If not, perhaps she should have considered retiring, she said.

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has also partnered with another Paradox Price project to address fare equity. One change in the works is a phone app to track the cost of weekly passes until they add up to a more cost-effective monthly plan, Greater Cleveland RTA spokesman Jose Feliciano said. Once that happens, low-income passengers will pay no more than if they could have shelled out $95 for a full monthly pass in the first place.

Plans are for the system to eventually be linked to a larger retail network where people could put money into their accounts. This approach could help people in households without savings, checking or credit union accounts, Feliciano said.

Additionally, Greater Cleveland RTA has made free monthly passes available to attendees of the Centers’ (formerly Family and Children’s Centers) job training programs. Greater Cleveland RTA also advised the Centers on the efficient routing and planning of the organization’s vehicles. And Sway Mobility provided an electric car for center staff to use on a shared basis to get to and from organizations’ facilities.

Sway Mobility also participated in a Lorain County project that provided three electric cars to the general public and clients of a homeless shelter and a work reintegration program to be booked on an hourly basis. Non-profit organizations got free use of cars; members of the public paid a low hourly rate. This team also used its Paradox Prize grant to expand transit routes and times.

Door to door service

Existing transit routes do not connect a variety of well-paying manufacturing jobs to some of the poorer ZIP codes in northeast Ohio. For example, the Cleveland Clergy Coalition and the American Association of Clergy and Employers have partnered with Manufacturing Works, a nonprofit business support organization.

The team’s Paradox Prize project used church vans that sit idle during the week to help workers from predominantly black neighborhoods on Cleveland’s east side get to manufacturing jobs in the outer suburbs. The program offers free rides for interviews and then free rides for commuters once workers have landed jobs.

“It’s a ministry, and our job is to help them move forward in life,” said Alsay Shivers, deacon of Sure House Baptist Church of Cleveland and mentor of the Cleveland Clergy Coalition. “We also listen to them and coach them on life skills,” he said.

Akron METRO RTA and ConxusNEO also developed a door-to-door van service to help residents in parts of Akron get to employment centers elsewhere in Summit County and later Portage County. .

Another Paradox Prize project showed how public transit can work in rural areas. Community Action Wayne/Medina worked with Wooster Transit and Wayne County Mobility Management to allow passengers to book door-to-door rides to and from work throughout Wayne County. Riders paid just $2.50 each way, making a round trip cost about what a gallon of gas cost in June.

The Stark Area Regional Transit Authority will continue the program, said Jan Conrad, mobility manager for Community Action Wayne/Medina. SARTA has also partnered with other organizations on a separate Paradox Prize project called Start Career Connect. The program has helped people find jobs with nearly 140 employers. The funding also provided free bus passes until workers could pay for their own bus service or other transportation.

Paradox Award projects have focused on strengthening existing transit systems where possible. Yet many transit systems still face challenges. The number of trips has generally not returned to pre-pandemic levels. And critics say Ohio lawmakers have long underfunded the state’s transit systems.

Capelle thinks that in the long term, public transit systems will need to provide perhaps fewer trips to the office, but more flexibility for other types of trips. So far, Laketran has been financially conservative and is in relatively good shape, Capelle said. In addition, he noted, the first 10 electric buses in the system have so far had lower-than-expected maintenance costs.

Meanwhile, creative commuting ideas aren’t limited to northeast Ohio. Columbus-based SHARE Mobility uses an IT platform to schedule and execute scheduled van services for corporate workers, for example.

“We’re basically an adult school bus,” said CEO and co-founder Ryan McManus. He hopes companies will eventually provide transportation as a routine benefit, in the same way they currently provide health insurance.

Many companies have long asked if potential employees have transportation. “It’s veiled language that discriminates,” McManus said. One in 13 households in Ohio does not have a car. Nationally, about one-sixth of black households do not have a vehicle.

“Who has access to a car is not equal in our society,” McManus said. “But why should every person go to work by themselves?” Meanwhile, U.S. employers are still looking to fill about 11 million jobs, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data through the end of May. For many businesses and workers, “transportation is the key to filling jobs,” McManus said.

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