By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
When it comes to getting from point A to point B, the easiest path is a straight line. But the straight line isn’t always possible, especially when one’s primary mode of transportation is the bus.
A new pilot program, FlexRide Milwaukee, is hoping to bridge the transportation gap between employees and their workplaces. FlexRide Milwaukee is a transportation service that offers rides to individuals who work for employers located within Menomonee Falls and Butler. It launched in early February.
“It’s like Uber or Lyft, but more efficient and less costly,” Lingqian Hu said. “We want to fill in the transportation gap in our region. FlexRide Milwaukee will serve people who cross county lines from Milwaukee County to Waukesha County.”
Hu is a faculty member for UW-Milwaukee’s Department of Urban Planning. She is part of the research team that helped plan and implement FlexRide Milwaukee.
UW-Milwaukee and Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission received a $50,000 planning grant from the National Science Foundation in January 2021. Through the grant, the research team conducted surveys on the transportation gap with potential users of the service and with employers.
In fall 2021, the team received a $1 million grant from National Science Foundation through its Civic Innovation Challenge grant program.
“It’s totally driven by potential users of our services,” Hu said. “I believe we got funding because we adopted a transformative planning process.”
Addressing the transportation gap
“Transportation insecurity is a huge issue,” Dave Steele, the executive director of MobiliSE, said. “If you lack a car in Milwaukee that means the majority of jobs, including those that are higher paying, are not within your reach.”
MobiliSE was formed in 2015 through the Regional Transit Leadership Council. It advocates for improving transportation options in Southeastern Wisconsin.
Steele added, “The whole point is to reduce the amount of time spent commuting; to increase the comfort level; (and) the safety level. Because it is essentially to the front door of the business, that means the rider won’t have to walk long distances.”
Safety is the No. 1 concern, he said.
Chytania Brown is president and CEO of Employ Milwaukee. The nonprofit is a partner on the project; it helped conduct the survey and is now connecting employees to the service.
Brown explained that buses only go to a certain point, but employment may be a mile or so out. In summer, it’s not so bad, but in winter it can be brutal, she said, especially when it’s dark outside and the area lacks sidewalks.
She noted that employees may feel fearful, especially people of color if they work in a predominately white area.
“Some of the harassment and things that you may endure are sometimes not even worth the job,” she said. “The job couldn’t pay enough to endure those challenges when you have the last mile.”
If people don’t experience it, they may not understand it, she said. FlexRide offers a safer option because employees are taken either directly to the door or close to it.
Milwaukee is thinking outside of the box with FlexRide, Brown said. She views the service as an additional resource for people looking for opportunities.
Most of the FlexRide vehicles are personal vehicles such as minivans, but there is one shuttle currently in use, Steele said. The service is similar to Uber, but the biggest difference is that the drivers are paid by the hour and on call for certain hours, he said.
Kevin Muhs, the executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, said that by talking to potential users of the app, the research team learned that travel time was more important than the cost of the service. Users wanted to make sure they arrived at work or home quickly and on time, he said. The commission helped UW-Milwaukee conduct surveys.
This information influenced the location of three pickup spots located within the city and ensured that the spots are located on Milwaukee County Transit System bus stops.
“A lot of the job growth that has occurred in our region in the past 20 years or so has occurred in suburban locations outside of Milwaukee,” Muhs said. “This service seeks to extend the similar type of access that people get to with bus system to the business parks.”
During the pilot program’s run, Hu and her team will continue conducting surveys. They will look at how it can improve the employment status and the retention rate of businesses located in Menomonee Falls and Butler and evaluate the environmental outcomes and the social equity aspects.
“We want to see if our approach can solve the institutional barriers,” she said, explaining that while many counties have transit systems, they lack the capacity to provide regionwide transit services.
“The long-term goal is to provide equal access to opportunities for people who live in segregated neighborhoods,” Hu said. “I believe that equal access to those opportunities is essential for people to reach their potential.”
Ultimately, organizers want to secure funding to sustain and expand the project, Hu said.
“Car ownership is a huge barrier to people in Milwaukee,” Hu said. “More transportation options in the region are good for economic growth and community development. Reducing that barrier to participating in the economy is huge.”
How does it work?
FlexRide Milwaukee is a smartphone app. Individuals interested in FlexRide must register to use the app. Once they’re approved, they will receive an access code.
The app is available to download on the App Store or Google Play Store. Individuals can download the app and create an account. To order a ride, the user must enter the pickup and drop-off locations and the app will handle the rest.
If a user does not have a smartphone, they can dial 414-667-7433 to request a ride.
Rides are available from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. Individuals can request a ride from one of the five stops: Sherman Phoenix, 3536 W. Fond du Lac Ave.; Midtown Center, 5700 W. Capitol Drive; Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, 5460 N. 64th St.; and Silver Spring Drive/Lovers Lane and Woodman’s/Sam’s Club, Highway 145.
Rides to and from Woodman/Sam’s Club and Silver Spring/Lovers Lane stops are currently free. Other stops cost $1.50 for a one-way ride. This price will eventually increase to $3.
Employers interested in joining the pilot can email Eric Lynde at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information on FlexRide Milwaukee can be found online. Click here or visit www.flexridemke.com.