Public Policy Forum Blog

Opportunities and obstacles to improving transit service to suburban jobs

In recent years, the divergence between where workers live in the Milwaukee metropolitan area and where jobs are located – also known as the “spatial mismatch” – has been well-documented, particularly in the context of declining public transportation services in the region. A new Forum report released this morning – “Getting to Worktakes a fresh look at this issue, reconsidering the options that may exist to improve transit access to suburban job centers throughout the Milwaukee area for those who cannot afford an automobile, or who otherwise cannot or opt not to use one.

The report begins by identifying suburban job centers that might benefit most from improved transportation access, and then examines how the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) develops new bus routes, including the many operational, financial, and political considerations that factor into route planning. Several new suburban bus routes are then modeled to illustrate potential costs, obstacles, and benefits. We also look at how alternative transportation services are managed and financed and their potential for expansion.

Our research confirms the long-held notion that public transportation services are limited or non-existent in many suburban job centers in the four-county Milwaukee area, and raises two important and related questions regarding the challenges of improving transit connections in the region:

  • To what extent is it realistic to consider new or extended fixed-route bus service to many suburban job centers in light of the isolated nature of those centers and the challenges that implementing such service would entail?
  • Might it instead be more beneficial and cost-effective for MCTS to focus on improving service to areas within Milwaukee County that already have the development density to support new transit services? 

While there is no conclusive answer to those questions, we offer the following observations and policy considerations to help those who wish to contemplate them:

Using fixed-route bus service to improve workers’ access to suburban jobs will require corollary strategies to address the “last mile” problem. In order to make fixed-route bus service viable in many suburban areas, specialized services that directly connect riders to their jobsites may be needed, such as MCTS shuttle connections, other publicly supported shuttle services, or employer-sponsored shuttle services. It is important to note, however, that such strategies bring added costs (to the transit provider and/or riders) and additional travel time, and that such efforts also have been difficult to scale up and sustain in the past.

Land use policies that foster higher-density, mixed-used development patterns, are the optimal solution. It is often very difficult to serve job centers in outer suburbs with fixed bus routes because of the lack of both development density and mixed land uses along potential routes, which are needed to produce ridership throughout the day. From a workforce and economic development perspective, therefore, it should be an imperative for governments to encourage businesses with workforce challenges to locate in or near higher-density areas where public transit services already exist or where new transit connections could be sustained.

Policymakers may need to create flexible criteria, such as effectiveness in meeting economic and workforce development objectives, when evaluating suburban bus routes. Suburban routes often struggle to meet MCTS’ productivity standard of 22 passengers per bus hour, which is a key factor influencing whether bus routes are sustained when budgets are tight. If policymakers feel there still is merit in considering such routes, then additional criteria tied to economic prosperity might be used as additional factors to consider.

Suburban routes may need to be accompanied by multi-year funding commitments in order to allow time to ride out cyclical economic fluctuations and establish ridership. Several failed suburban routes enjoyed substantial ridership after implementation, only to see ridership fizzle with the loss of jobs at the suburban terminus during times of economic recession. Consequently, policymakers who wish to implement new or extended suburban routes should resolve to sustain them for multiple years.

New approaches for funding public transit will need to be considered. Reduced federal and state transit funding has made it extremely difficult to maintain existing transit services, let alone finance new bus route extensions to suburbs. Clearly, creation of a regional transit authority would help, not only by creating the opportunity for a new source of regional funding, but also by reducing contentiousness over funding for multi-county routes. Barring that solution, there may need to be greater inter-county cost sharing for such routes, and greater private sector participation in supporting shuttles and other employment-specific transit.

With MCTS struggling to maintain existing bus services – and federal and state funding for public transit and other employment-focused transportation services in the Milwaukee area down from previous years – improving access for workers who depend upon or choose transit to get to suburban jobs in the region is no easy task. We hope this report will help policymakers as they deliberate potential ways of doing so.

Joe Peterangelo