Ohio’s Paradox Prize projects offer transit solutions for car-dependent communities
Getting on board with public transit options can help employers recruit and retain workers, while also promoting equity and reducing some greenhouse gas emissions. That approach helped Laketran, Ohio’s Lake County regional transit system, take home top honors in June at a program celebrating Paradox Prize winners.
Launched in 2019 by the Cleveland-based Fund for Our Economic Future, the Paradox Prize aims to solve the problem of “No car, no job; no job, no car.”
Cleveland, like most American cities, is heavily car-dependent due in part to housing and land-use policies that have encouraged suburban sprawl while neglecting urban neighborhoods where jobs and housing were once in closer proximity. Getting to jobs in outer suburbs via public transit — if possible at all — can require multiple transfers, adding hours to commutes.
That creates an additional burden on low-wage workers, as well as leads to higher per-capita emissions than denser cities elsewhere. Black residents, who are both less likely to have access to cars and more likely to be harmed by tailpipe pollution, bear the brunt of this disparity. Segregation patterns that began with historic redlining continue in Cleveland and elsewhere in Ohio.
Other urban areas in Northeast Ohio have similar problems on a smaller scale. And rural areas have generally had few public transit options, especially for people working shifts that begin earlier or last longer than 9 to 5.
“Transportation is everyone’s business,” said Bethia Burke, president of the Fund for Our Economic Future. “Improving job access for the 4 million-plus residents who call Northeast Ohio home is imperative for anyone working toward a more equitable economy.”
Laketran’s initial $75,000 grant jumpstarted Transit GO, which lets Lake County employers offer free transportation to workers on several local routes. The program has helped roughly 400 workers earning an average of $12 per hour at 175 employers. A $25,000 bonus from the Paradox Prize and an additional grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation provided more funding.
Laketran’s local tax levy will continue the program past its pilot stage. Laketran also will be expanding weekday service to start at 5 a.m. and end at 9 p.m. to accommodate more work shifts.
Transit GO helps employees financially, although there aren’t income cut-offs. “If you can get to work for free, it allows you to use the money you have on other stuff, like food and groceries and all the other things we need in our lives,” said Laketran CEO Ben Capelle.
“This program also helps introduce people to transit that maybe wouldn’t have known about it before,” Capelle said. “And, more importantly, employers can use it as a selling point for why you should work for them.”
Meanwhile, Cuyahoga County’s MetroHealth System used part of its Paradox Prize funding to provide some free monthly transit passes for frontline workers, teach people how to use public transit, and provide incentives for using transit and other means for commuting. Employees who don’t get free passes can use the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s Commuter Advantage program, which lets them buy monthly transit passes with pre-tax dollars.
Without the program, retail food service aide Mike Baleski said it would have been harder to get monthly passes, especially when the pandemic temporarily shut down his local library branch. Additionally, the program “saved me a lot of money,” he said.
“Metro[Health] cares and is supportive of how we get to work,” said facilities management specialist Karen Walker. She especially appreciated help with logistics as her personal physical mobility situation changed. Otherwise, she might have had to consider retirement, she said.
The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority also teamed up on another Paradox Prize project to address fare equity. One change in the works is a phone app to track the cost of weekly passes until they add up to a more cost-effective monthly one, said José Feliciano, intergovernmental relations officer for Greater Cleveland RTA. Once that happens, lower-income riders won’t pay more than if they had been able to shell out $95 for a full monthly pass in the first place.
Plans call for the system to eventually tie into a broader retail network where people could put money on their accounts. That approach could help people in households without savings, checking or credit union accounts, Feliciano said.
Additionally, Greater Cleveland RTA made free monthly passes available to people in The Centers’ (formerly the Centers for Families and Children) job-training programs. Greater Cleveland RTA also advised The Centers on efficient routing and planning for the organization’s vehicles. And Sway Mobility provided an electric car for The Centers’ staff to use on a shared basis to go to and from the organizations’ facilities.
Sway Mobility also participated in a Lorain County project that provided three electric cars for the general public and clients of a homeless shelter and a job re-entry program to reserve on an hourly basis. The nonprofits got free use of the cars; members of the public paid a low hourly fee. That team also used its Paradox Prize grant to expand public transit routes and hours.
Existing transit routes don’t run between various good-paying manufacturing jobs and some of Northeast Ohio’s poorest ZIP codes. So, the Cleveland Clergy Coalition and American Association of Clergy and Employers teamed up with Manufacturing Works, a business-support nonprofit.
The team’s Paradox Prize project used church vans that sit idle during the week to help workers from primarily Black neighborhoods on Cleveland’s east side get to manufacturing jobs in outer suburbs. The program provides free rides for interviews and then free commuter rides once workers land the jobs.
“This is a ministry, and our job is to help them to get ahead in life,” said Alsay Shivers, a deacon with Cleveland’s Sure House Baptist Church and mentor with the Cleveland Clergy Coalition. “We also listen to them and mentor them on life skills,” he said.
Akron METRO RTA and ConxusNEO also developed a door-to-door van service to help people in parts of Akron get to job hubs elsewhere in Summit County and later Portage County.
Yet another Paradox Prize project showed how public transit can work in rural areas. Community Action Wayne/Medina worked with Wooster Transit and Wayne County Mobility Management to let riders reserve door-to-door rides to and from work throughout Wayne County. Riders paid just $2.50 each way, making a round trip cost roughly what a gallon of gas cost in June.
The Stark Area Regional Transit Authority will be continuing the program, said Jan Conrad, mobility manager for Community Action Wayne/Medina. SARTA also teamed up with other organizations for a separate Paradox Prize project called Start Career Connect. The program helped individuals find jobs at nearly 140 employers. Funding also provided free bus passes until workers could pay for their own bus service or other transit.
The Paradox Prize projects stressed building on existing public transit systems when possible. Yet many public transit systems still face challenges. The number of rides generally hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels. And critics say Ohio lawmakers have long underfunded the state’s public transit systems.
Capelle thinks that in the long term transit systems will need to plan for perhaps fewer office commutes, yet more flexibility for other types of rides. For now, Laketran has been financially conservative and is in relatively good shape, Capelle said. Also, he noted, the system’s first 10 electric buses have so far had lower maintenance costs than anticipated.
Meanwhile, creative commuting ideas aren’t limited to Northeast Ohio. Columbus-based SHARE Mobility uses a computer platform to schedule and run planned van services for companies’ workers, for example.
“We’re basically a school bus for adults,” said CEO and co-founder Ryan McManus. He hopes companies will eventually provide transportation as a routine benefit, in much the way they currently provide healthcare insurance.
Many companies have long asked if prospective employees have transportation. “That is veiled language that discriminates,” McManus said. One in 13 Ohio households doesn’t have a car. Nationally, about one-sixth of Black households don’t have a vehicle.
“Who has access to a car is not equal across our society,” McManus said. “But why is every person expected to get to work on their own?” Meanwhile, U.S. employers are still looking to fill roughly 11 million jobs, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data through the end of May. For many companies and workers, “transportation is the key to filling jobs,” McManus said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify José Feliciano’s role at Greater Cleveland RTA.