Milwaukee’s transit-jobs mismatch

By Chris Spahr

Milwaukee’s growth pattern and the location of business hubs in the suburbs, combined with reduced funding for transit, have created a “spatial mismatch” in the metro area.  The term “spatial mismatch” is defined in a new report by the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum  as a divergence between where workers live in the Milwaukee area and where jobs are located.  Many of Milwaukee’s jobs have moved to the suburbs and out of reach for the 13 percent of Milwaukee’s workers without a car.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Statistical Area—defined as Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha, and Washington Counties—has seen an increase of 120,000 jobs since 1980. However, the suburbanization of these jobs has created a 14 percent reduction of jobs in Milwaukee County.  To exacerbate the problem, the Milwaukee County Transit System has cut service due to sustained financial difficulties over the past decade resulting in a 22 percent decline of total annual bus miles between 2000 and 2012.

MCTS bus routes and metropolitan job hubs

MCTS bus routes and metropolitan job hubs
Click image to enlarge

These challenges to transit-dependent workers in Milwaukee create equity issues in the region. MCTS only provides five routes extending beyond the county’s borders. Two of the five routes are freeway flyers primarily configured to serve suburban commuters, with extremely limited service for Milwaukee residents making the reverse commute. This inequity is highlighted in a lawsuit by Milwaukee community groups against expansion of the Zoo Interchange, a project that plaintiffs claim is structured to provide peak service for the suburban residents accessing jobs in the city without facilitating the reverse commute for city residents.

Fixed bus routes do serve some suburban job centers in the Milwaukee metro area, but no express service is offered and travel times from most areas of the county are unrealistic for a daily reverse commuter. For example, the Public Policy Forum’s report shows estimated travel times to Brookfield Square from four zip codes in Milwaukee County with high unemployment rates. Trip times ranged from 57 to 82 minutes.

A consistent theme in the report, entitled Getting to Work: Opportunities and obstacles to improving transit service to suburban Milwaukee job hubs, highlights how past land use planning decisions in Milwaukee isolates suburban industrial parks from other land uses that generate transit riders.  The report suggests that land use policies that foster higher-density, mixed-use development patterns are the optimal solution. The authors also promote policies that encourage businesses with workforce challenges to locate in or near higher density areas where public transit services already exist or where new transit can be sustained. However, these objectives prove challenging, and changes often move at a slow pace.

Joe Peterangelo, a researcher with the Public Policy Forum and one of the authors of the report, suggests that more achievable goals in the short term include extending existing bus lines further within the metropolitan area or converting routes from the center city to the suburbs from local service to express service. However, extending bus lines further outside of the county doesn’t necessarily provide direct access to jobs for Milwaukee residents. Peterangelo suggests that shuttle routes that circulate at the ends of multiple routes can help carry workers to industrial areas.

Another effective service highlighted by Peterangelo is the Milwaukee Area JobRide Collaborative, a service offering employment-related transportation for low-income individuals to locations not served by the transit system. However, the largest source of support for the MAJC has been the federal Job Access Reverse Commute program, which is being eliminated under MAP-21. That funding is being transferred to the Urbanized Area Formula program, a general public transit fund operated by the county.  It will be up to Milwaukee County to determine whether it wants to provide funding for MAJC moving forward.

Milwaukee isn’t the only city struggling to deal with the challenges presented by reverse commuting. Chicago’s transit system is also designed primarily to bring workers from outside the city into downtown. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the region’s jobs are outside of the urban core. Recognizing land use and transportation linkages is increasingly important as cities deal with these significant transportation and equity issues.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.