Despite our region’s natural and cultural attractions, affordability remains a major challenge for businesses seeking qualified, dependable workers. Or maybe it’s because of the region’s attractiveness that the workforce we need struggles to live here.
The new term ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) describes what was previously called “the working poor,” and the numbers provided by United Way for Northwest Michigan are stark: nearly 40 percent of working families in our region fall below the minimum income threshold to cover basic needs.
Affordability is often discussed as a housing issue, but in mostly rural, sprawling northwest Michigan, affordability is inextricably linked to the costs of transportation.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell: Traverse City’s population has held steady at roughly 15,000 for the past 40 years while Grand Traverse County’s surrounding townships have added 50,000 new residents.
These new residents moving to our region are living out of town on “cheaper land” that is far from jobs, day care, schools, shopping and social activity. Their housing location requires that they have access to reliable transportation to get into town – and it typically means that each driver in a household needs to have their own car.
So it’s important that we strive to provide affordable transportation alternatives for our workforce and celebrate when those options are made available. Last May, voters in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties reaffirmed their support through a millage for the Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA), our region’s public transportation system.
But proactive steps at the ballot box aren’t enough. Too many voters who supported the BATA millage have never considered riding the bus, much less thought about how they could promote and enhance this service for themselves, their workers, and their neighbors.
BATA’s regional bus service is an underutilized asset that is well positioned to address the region’s affordability and affordable housing dual conundrums.
Public transportation is an important solution for working families struggling with the cost of both a daily commute in addition to the cost of housing. Standard benchmarks for household affordability recommend that families should pay no more than 45 percent of their total income on the combined costs of housing and transportation. But data from Networks Northwest’s 2014 “Framework for Housing Choices in Northwest Michigan” indicates that moderate-income households in the region spend a whopping 73 percent of their income on housing and transportation – and the average household spends as much as $16,000 per year on transportation costs.
Even though regional voters consistently support millages for BATA, we don’t see a corresponding increase in ridership. In fact, while more than 9,000 people voted for BATA in the last election, daily ridership numbers for the transit agency indicate that it rarely sees more than 2,000 riders a day.
Many are unaware that BATA has become a model rural transit system in Michigan and nationwide. BATA has strategically modified its service to better accommodate workers by replacing the old “dial-a-ride” system that primarily served the disabled, the elderly, and the non-driving community with a creative fixed-route “Loop” and “Link” service that is now a viable option for many workers.
BATA links residents in more than a dozen villages with a widespread system of in-town fixed routes that get workers to their job on time. Next summer, BATA will launch a new “Bayline” service that connects Munson, Northwestern Michigan College and other important Traverse City destinations. Buses on that route will depart every 10 minutes, and operate for more hours each day.
Certainly BATA can do more to market and promote its services, and hopefully with this new millage it will step up its game by placing more prominent signs and information at bus stops. But business owners that voted to support BATA – or those that complain about “empty buses” – can also do more to increase ridership by promoting the service to their workers and to their customers.
In particular, businesses that depend on hourly-wage workers know that their employees are only as dependable as their vehicles. Those employers can do more to promote ridership by educating their workers about the opportunity to use BATA. We can look downstate for a guide. Ann Arbor has created an innovative “Get Downtown” program that encourages employees to use transit to commute to their jobs by providing a “go pass” that provides free, unlimited busing for their workers.
Here’s an added benefit: workers who ride public transit also reduce traffic congestion and leave parking spaces open for customers.
That’s why business leaders should engage and support BATA as it develops new services and ways to transport workers. In the past, bus stops have been relegated to inconvenient locations because of stereotypical concerns about “those people” riding the bus. Instead, bus stops should be recognized as opportunities for businesses to engage with their community of riders and recognize them as customers, workers and neighbors. We adopt highways; why don’t we adopt bus stops and make sure the snow is shoveled and the trash is picked up, and perhaps add benches, public art or flower gardens?
Of course, the best way to promote BATA is to ride it yourself and see how well it works. I’ve been a regular rider for more than a decade and I love that I can enjoy my commute by chatting with neighbors, working on my laptop, reading an article, or perhaps taking a nap. I encourage you to give it a try and learn what a great system it is that you voted for — and are paying for.
Jim Lively is the program director at the Groundwork Center. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.