UniteGPS – One of the latest efforts with the potential to halt the national labor shortage comes from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) with its “micro-transit” pilot beginning on Feb. 1, 2022. 

FlexRide Milwaukee is an on-demand rideshare program linking unemployed people with jobs in nearby suburban areas

Called “FlexRide Milwaukee,” the ride-sharing initiative has organized five different pick-up and drop-off locations around areas of the city with the highest unemployment rates. For right now, users have coverage in Sherman Phoenix, Midtown Center, Silver Spring Neighborhood Center, as well as two other spots in the northwest. 

Whether riding in an SUV, van, or shuttle bus, this will be an on-demand service reminiscent of Uber or Lyft where people are taken directly to work, such as a school district or bus garage. Rather than focusing solely on the number of users over time, what FlexRide Milwaukee prioritizes is long-term job security for low-income people. 

“Our goal is not only to count the number of people who use the service but (to measure) economic development benefits,” said Ivy Hu, professor of architecture and urban planning at UWM, as well as a FlexRide Milwaukee team member.

Micro-transit background 

Originally, this project began in September 2021 as a means to transport unemployed people from Milwaukee to work in the Menomonee Falls and Butler areas of Waukesha County.

Upon receiving a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and participating in the Civic Innovation Challenge, the UWM research team is prepared to tackle the labor shortage as well as the lack of public transportation across the state.

To organize this, the UWM research team collaborated with various employment centers as well as the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC). According to Kevin Muhs, Executive Director of SEWRPC, heightened transit services will ultimately support more viable employment opportunities for city residents.

“We have a longstanding interest in trying to work on issues in this region with regard to equal access to jobs,” said Muhs, mentioning that most new jobs around Milwaukee come from the suburbs.

Micro-transit for school bus drivers

As far as UniteGPS is concerned, more reliable transportation between urban, suburban, and rural communities could assist in attracting more qualified people to fulfill vacant bus driver roles.

Although FlexRide Milwaukee hasn’t catered directly to school districts to ease the bus driver shortage, certain transportation directors in rural Wisconsin communities consider this sort of ride-sharing program to be a viable option for their local hiring dilemmas.

When asked about bringing in drivers from nearby communities of La Crosse or Wisconsin Rapids in hopes of creating new route coverage, Sue Goyette from the School District of Mauston told UniteGPS, “I think that might be what we have to do.”

“We’re struggling; we could use other routes, we’re getting requests all the time for new pick-up spots in town, and we just don’t have room on the buses,” said Goyette, who oversees a staff of 16 drivers in transporting nearly 1,500 students.

Intensified by the pandemic, fewer available drivers have forced her community to consolidate routes. In turn, “some are really crammed and we got kids riding for a good hour or better in the morning and after school; that’s a long time for little kids to be sitting on the bus.”