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Solutions Sought to Ease NEO Worker Mobility Obstacles

By Kathy Ames Carr, Crain Content Studio - Cleveland

John Wittine of Alliance Industrial Solutions has a software program that enables him to identify the location of Northeast Ohio job applicants who want to work in manufacturing. The data include their transportation needs and how far they are willing to commute. He overlays the data points on top of a Google map of the region, which reveals the vast discrepancies between where the candidates are located and where the jobs are.

“There are little blue pins littered all over these corridors on the West Side, like West Park, and in the East Side, like Garfield Heights, Maple Heights, Warrensville Heights and Bedford Heights. We have a huge demand for workers in suburbs like Strongsville and Solon, but the qualified candidates who want to work there either don’t want the long commute or don’t have a car to get there.”

Alliance Industrial Solutions, an Independence-based staffing agency, is among the organizations working with the Fund for Our Economic Future to consider new transportation solutions that will improve worker mobility.  

“The conversation around transportation has long been framed around public transit and car ownership,” said Bethia Burke, vice president at the Fund. “We need to think more expansively about worker mobility. Our economy is urban, suburban and rural, and mobility disconnect shows up all over. We need to understand how these shared challenges have different solutions based on different densities and transportation assets.”

THE CHALLENGE

Unfavorable land use patterns and the outmigration of jobs have contributed to a spatial mismatch between jobs and people. Those most affected are people of color. National and local policies have driven segregated development patterns and community disinvestment, resulting in regional areas of economic distress that are disproportionately populated by black residents while the fastest-growing job hubs are located in communities that are disproportionately white. This amounts to distance discrimination, according to the Fund.

Too many of the region’s workers face an intractable scenario: no car, no job; no job, no car.  This stems from a set of untenable choices: a commute by public transit that can be as long as three hours a day, an expensive car commute that can consume more than an hour’s worth of wages or a significantly smaller set of often lower paying employment options. “The time and cost spent on daily commutes make it harder to advance in work and reduces the quality of life for Northeast Ohioans,” Burke said.

Meanwhile, for employers, the distance between people and jobs reduces access to workforce and creates hiring and retention challenges. Long commutes increase turnover and the cost of doing business.

DRIVING ACTION

In response, several organizations and economic development leaders are collaborating with the Fund, which, this spring, will launch a $1 million, three-year mobility innovations challenge that incentivizes the public to help solve the paradox of “no car, no job; no job, no car.”

The Paradox Prize will encourage participants to submit practical, scalable solutions that help Northeast Ohioans stranded economically by geography to connect to open job positions. Through a series of rolling deadlines, the Fund anticipates awarding funding for up to 15 pilot projects over the next three years. Big ideas not yet ready for implementation will be awarded technical assistance, with the potential to receive future funding.

“We can eliminate the mobility paradox if we embrace seamless solutions that expand options for people beyond individualized car ownership or a taking a traditional bus,” Burke said. “Potential alternative options include ride-sharing, neighborhood-based designs, car/van-pooling services, and on-demand services. Done in conjunction with an effective, efficient public transportation system, these mobility solutions have the potential to dramatically increase prospects for economic advancement for Northeast Ohio’s un- and underemployed residents and improve the ability for area businesses to fill thousands of open jobs across the region.”

Seed money for The Paradox Prize comes in part from a $600,000 national grant the Fund received to test innovations in worker mobility. The Greater Cleveland Partnership and The Lozick Family Foundation are also supporting the challenge; and many other partners have signed up to provide technical assistance. 

Addressing the mobility paradox and increasing access to jobs is called for in The Two Tomorrows report, in which the Fund focuses on improving connections of people to current jobs through the use of innovation, more efficient route planning, and advocating for a public transportation agenda, as well as encouraging development that brings more jobs to where people live through prioritization of the region’s job hubs.

There is increased urgency to address the job access challenge within the business community.

Marty McGann, senior vice president of advocacy and strategic initiatives for Greater Cleveland Partnership, said the employer-employee location disconnect is a resounding concern among its membership, so much so he anticipates that it will lead to more collaborative problem-solving.

“We hear loud and clear from organizations that they have talent needs, and that transportation is a critical issue within Northeast Ohio’s talent pool and a growth-limiting factor,” he said. “This is also one of our priorities in our strategic plan. We will be actively communicating with our members to let them know how to further engage in this work with us, the Fund and others.”

Small, mid-size cities and metropolises throughout the country are advancing mobility solutions in different ways. For example:

  • Like Northeast Ohio, Buffalo is facing job access challenges, said Dominic Mathew, director of mobility innovation at the Fund. That city is addressing the issue in part through GO Buffalo Niagara, a comprehensive multi-modal transportation network. 
  • In Columbus, eligible downtown employees can get unlimited public transit bus access at no cost. And, transportation solutions such as SHARE, a scheduled microtransit service, is filling the gap between Uber and Lyft, and public transportation. SHARE offers scheduled, recurring rides for people traveling between work, church, school and the doctor, said CEO Ryan McManus. “More than half of every passenger mile is spent going to a job, getting an education or for health care,” McManus said.  
  • Locally, the Akron Metro Regional Transit Authority’s Driving Metro Forward Initiative is working to determine where traditional bus services work, and where creative transportation solutions, such as circulars and ride-sharing, work better.  
  • Meanwhile, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority is examining its role in the future of public transit as both a service provider and mobility integrator. RTA is exploring ways in which it can use technology to integrate within a multi-modal transportation model that could get people to their destination faster and more efficiently. “About 5% of workers in Cuyahoga County use public transit to get to work, which is on par with the national average. In Cleveland, 23.7% of workers use public transit to get to work, but in some communities, it’s closer to 60%,” said Floun’say Caver, RTA’s interim CEO. “Talk about a tale of two cities. We do a good job of covering access, but with restricted funding, we have to balance efficiency in the urban core with representation in outlying areas. We see our role as helping people create more informed trips. We can easily integrate with ride-sharing services, bike-sharing and employer circulars, all of which could be coordinated with the use of an app.”

FINDING A SUSTAINABLE SOLUTION

Within this framework, public transit should continue to serve as the backbone of the region’s ecosystem of transit solutions, Caver and other worker mobility advocates say. The Greater Ohio Policy Center asserts this narrative, noting public transportation is a lifeline connecting jobs and vulnerable populations, although the diminishing state investment in Ohio’s transit systems is holding back innovation and economic activity.

The Fund’s Mathew said he hopes The Paradox Prize not only produces sustainable transportation solutions, but leads to broader policy decisions that drive sensible and equitable economic investment.  

“This transportation issue stems from land use decisions. We need to think about how we build equity within the current infrastructure, which means we need to focus on investing in job hubs and working with employers to aggregate shared systems of travel,” he said. “The business of transportation is rapidly shifting, and our region has an opportunity to realize shared economic wealth through seamless worker mobility.”

THE PARADOX PRIZE

For more information about how to partner with or apply for the Fund’s Paradox Prize, email Dominic at dmathew@thefundneo.org.

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