Northeast Ohio is a region built for the car, evidenced by cross-cutting freeways and huge parking lots that dominate the landscape. For the past year, I have lived carless in this car-centric community, using public transportation, ride-hailing services and my bike to get around. During my morning bus commute, I have come to know many other carless residents — workers who wake up before daybreak to travel two hours to get to jobs on time, mothers who drop off their children at daycare in one part of the city before taking another bus to get to work on the opposite end, and those traveling by bus because their driver’s license was suspended for any number of offenses (in many cases, some that have nothing to do with driving). Most of my co-passengers are not taking public transit by choice.
They face challenging commutes, if they can get to a job at all, because of decades of development patterns that have isolated entire neighborhoods. Without a car, it’s like living on an island without bridges or boats and everything you need is across the water.
This reality is the result of decades of outward migration by businesses and residents, without an increase in jobs or population to substantiate the spread. A 2016 report from the Brookings Institution found that, out of 96 metro areas, the Cleveland MSA saw the largest drop in the number of jobs near where people lived. Roughly 1 in 4 jobs disappeared for the average resident. Not surprisingly, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has increased by 21 percent over the last two decades.
Northeast Ohio’s history of no-growth sprawl is challenging and harmful for:
- Transit systems, which are expected to do more with less (the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, for example, is expected to serve all of Cuyahoga County on a tight budget, compromising many of these levels of service);
- Municipalities, which are overburdened fiscally by having to support new infrastructure while maintaining the old;
- Businesses, which struggle to fill open positions;
- The environment, which suffers as air quality declines due to long, car-based commutes; and, most importantly,
- People, who spend more time and money commuting, if they can get to a job in the first place.
Essentially, the options for residents are: a commute by public transit that can be as long as three hours every day, an expensive commute by car that can consume more than an hour’s worth of wages, or a significantly smaller set of employment opportunities closer to home. Too many residents, especially persons of color and those living in low-income areas with low rates of car ownership, find themselves stuck in an intractable scenario: no car, no job; no job, no car.
The Fund for Our Economic Future, an alliance of Northeast Ohio funders working to achieve economic growth with equitable access to opportunity, has been focused for more than a decade on improving the spatial aspects of the region’s growth, calling for efforts that bring jobs to people and people to jobs. In June, the Fund joined with several other partners to launch The Paradox Prize. This innovation challenge is open to anyone—nonprofits, employers, mobility providers, individuals, public institutions—and seeks ideas that will improve the mobility of Northeast Ohioans stranded economically by their geography. The Paradox Prize will grant up to $1 million in funding and technical assistance to support up to 15 pilots over the next three years. We structured this as a public competition in the hopes that it builds awareness around transportation challenges in the region, while testing innovative mobility options that look beyond car ownership and work on a foundation of transit.
We pulled together a regional Advisory and Selection Committee comprising of experts in transit, workforce development, philanthropy, and business to review and select ideas. More than 80 proposals were received in the first two rounds. Proposed solutions included different forms of ridesharing, shuttle services, transit agencies testing new routes, MaaS applications, community or co-op based transportation, commuter benefits, and multimodal solutions.
So far, five winners have been named:
- Manufacturing Works, a manufacturing coalition for small and medium businesses, working with the Cleveland Clergy Coalition and the American Association of Clergy and Employers, won $100,000 to connect church-based hubs in two low-income neighborhoods in Cleveland to outlying job hubs in the county with limited to no public transportation access, using church vans that typically sit idle throughout the week.
- Akron METRO RTA, collaborating with workforce development organization ConxusNEO, won $75,000 to test its FlexRide program, a door-to-door, on-demand service connecting workers to job hubs in northern Summit County that promises to save employers thousands of dollars in reduced turnover and lost down-time, while opening up new job possibilities.
- SHARE, a mobility solutions startup, will receive $16,000 to work with the staffing agency Express Employment Professionals to provide ride-sharing services for job seekers from East Cleveland, Euclid and Glenville to the Mentor/Painesville job hub in neighboring Lake County.
- Community Action Wayne/Medina’s $100,000 award will build on an existing service and support new technology to create an affordable, flexible, on-demand, vanpooling option to give people access to employment opportunities in a rural area with no public transit.
- Laketran, Lake County's public transit operator, will receive $75,000 to test a new on-demand van service from underserved areas to high-paying manufacturing jobs in Lake County, working closely with employers, Lincoln Electric and Component Repair Technologies, the Lake County Board of Commissioners and the Lake County Ohio Port & Economic Development Authority.
In total, these pilots will serve up to 200 workers.
As we take a step back and analyze the submissions we’ve received and the pilots funded so far, we are seeing some important lessons emerge. Namely, the need for mobility solutions is greater than we realized; our region (and state) would benefit from an environment that encourages experimentation; and there is more we can be doing as a community to help businesses see the importance of transportation.
With these early lessons in mind, we hope future rounds of The Paradox Prize yield more ideas that:
- Increase public transit ridership or improve the rider experience
- Come from communities experiencing the challenge
- Are supported by the private sector and have the potential to serve a larger scale of employees
- Incorporate electric mobility
- Integrate multiple modes of transit
The Paradox Prize is welcoming submissions for Round 3 until January 15, 2020. Ultimately, we hope to catalyze not just a range of mobility solutions for our community, but conversations that can bridge the mobility divide in our region and raise the profile of this important issue.
Dominic Mathew is an urban and regional planner, mobility innovations for the Cleveland-based nonprofit Fund for Our Economic Future.