Getting to work: An innovative partnership removes transportation barriers in South Bend
Lack of access to reliable transportation is often cited as a barrier to employment. In fact it was frequently cited as a significant obstacle by participants in focus groups on economic inclusion hosted by the Federal Reserve of Chicago.1 The challenge is especially significant in smaller, low-density cities with limited public transportation infrastructure.
The city of South Bend, Indiana, is addressing this challenge through an innovative partnership between the city and local employers, with initial support from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge.2 Commuters Trust3 is an employer-provided benefit that provides employees with up to 20 discounted Lyft rides per month. Two of the rides are available for 1 cent; the remaining 18 cost $4, each. Users are also provided with access to South Bend’s regional bus system, Transpo, at no cost.
Since it was launched in September 2019, Commuters Trust has over 200 subscribers across three major local employers: the University of Notre Dame, the city of South Bend, and Beacon Health System. In Phase II, beginning in the first quarter of 2020, the program will expand by increasing both the number of participating employers and employee subscribers. The partnership hopes to ultimately scale to reach hundreds of South Bend employees.
Program lead, Aaron Steiner, says Commuters Trust is driven by a vision of it being an employer-funded program, without philanthropic subsidy. Therefore, its ultimate success hinges on “being able to demonstrate a return on investment for employers in terms of reductions in absenteeism, tardies, and turnover.” The program relies on robust data from its employer partners to establish baseline metrics from which to measure cost-savings. Steiner says the program could potentially inform future public transportation investments if it can achieve a sufficient scale with more subscribers and a larger, more diverse pool of employers – including manufacturing and logistics firms. With enough participants, the program could gather data on commuting patterns, including when and where rides originate and terminate, helping to more efficiently target both public and private investments in transportation systems.
Users are also an important source of data. Preliminary survey results, provided by the city of South Bend, indicate that around 80 percent of users rely on Commuters Trust as a back-up, when normal transportation plans are disrupted. However, 20 percent have greater transportation “insecurity” and would use the service more regularly. Steiner says this is consistent with expectations, likening the benefit to health insurance, with most users only making use of it occasionally, with others needing more service. Early user data is consistent with this metaphor showing that 22 percent of subscribers are responsible for 95 percent of ride volume. However, a survey of users stresses the importance of the service with 75 percent indicating that they would have otherwise been late or missed a shift. The same percentage reported being able to take on additional shifts because of access to reliable transportation.
In the first three months of the program, 40 percent of those with access to the benefit have made use of it. Steiner explains that while most of the users have access to a smartphone and a data plan (a requirement of participation), the idea of requesting a car and being driven by a stranger takes some getting used to. The program continues active outreach and Steiner hopes that word of mouth will be a useful tool in gaining community acceptance of the resource.
For other cities considering such a program, Steiner stresses the importance of strong partnerships and that external support, in the form of a grant or other subsidy, over an extended period of time is necessary in order to make the case to employers that the cost savings from a reduction in absenteeism and tardiness is worth the investment.
1 Preliminary findings from focus groups on economic inclusion in smaller cities: https://www.chicagofed.org/publications/profitwise-news-and-views/2019/preliminary-findings-from-focus-groups-on-economic-inclusion-in-smaller-cities
2 The city of South Bend was the recipient of a three-year, $1 million Bloomberg Mayors Challenge grant.