Understanding Transportation Preferences in Low-Income Communities

Increasing access to transportation has real economic power for low-income individuals, communities, and employers. To leverage that power, it is helpful to understand the needs and preferences of people who rely on transportation systems.


A policy brief published by The Poverty Solutions initiative at the University of Michigan provides insight. In “Mobility-On-Demand versus Fixed-Route-Transit: An Evaluation of Traveler Preferences in Low-Income Communities,” authors Tawanna R. Dillahunt and Xiang ‘Jacob’ Yan sought to understand how disadvantaged communities would respond to innovative transportation solutions, such as on-demand services.


Relevance in West Michigan

Their findings have implications for our region, where transportation has been identified as a significant barrier to workforce participation, talent and prosperity – and where innovative solutions are already showing promise.


According to the United Way’s 2019 Michigan Report, vehicle ownership is an expense second only to housing, averaging $347 a month – nearly 20 percent of annual income for an individual living at or below the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). For a family of four, this rises to $693. For someone making $10.50 an hour, replacing a single flat tire can cost almost a full day of take-home pay.


Public transportation is considerably cheaper but not universally available in West Michigan. Even in places served by buses, some workers rely public transportation routes that end a mile or more from places of business. Lack of reliable transportation contributes to tardiness and absenteeism. If a job is lost, the cost to replace a worker is estimated at upwards of $3,500 for each entry-level position.


Transportation is a key factor in increasing the region’s labor force participation rates (currently 64.3% for ages 16 and up) and reducing the number of people living below the ALICE threshold, a struggling population that includes 39% of households in West Michigan.


Understanding the Issues

To examine transportation preferences in low-income communities, Dillahunt and Yan used data from online surveys of 900 disadvantaged travelers in Detroit and Ypsilanti. They targeted those with an annual household income of $25,000 or less, and who are 60 years or older, do not own a car, or have a disability.


Mobility-on-demand services were more strongly preferred by men, college graduates, people with experience using ride-hailing services, and those unsatisfied with existing transit services. Women and those without college degrees were less likely to prefer mobility-on-demand.


Survey results suggest that it will be important for transit agencies to address safety concerns expressed by female riders. It also will be important to accommodate those with low digital literacy or technical proficiency.


Individuals who were unfamiliar with ride-hailing services favored fixed-route transit. It was previously assumed that a lack of access to bank accounts, smart phones or the Internet were barriers to on-demand services. However, this survey suggests the lack of digital literacy or technical proficiency is more closely linked to an unwillingness to participate in the “sharing economy.”


Preferences for on-demand versus fixed-route transportation did not vary much by age, income, race or disability status.


The top benefit listed by survey respondents was the “enhanced transit accessibility to different destinations.” And the top three concerns were the process of requesting rides, fare increases, and technological failures.


The authors suggest increasing the adoption of mobility-on-demand services could include providing direct support to individuals learning to use the system, increased access to Wi-Fi hotspots, providing direct subsidies to low-income travelers, and larger spaces between seats or installing security cameras to address safety concerns.


Innovation in West Michigan

In West Michigan’s urban, suburban, and rural communities, transportation solutions are expanding on multiple levels.


In metro Grand Rapids, The Rapid bus system began piloting on-demand GO!Bus Services. This is a pilot program in partnership with Via, a mobility technology company, to provide door-to-door, on-demand services to individuals who are eligible to ride the GO!Bus in Grand Rapids and Kentwood.


West Shore Community College is partnering with Manistee County Transportation, Inc. and the Ludington Mass Transit Authority to offer a free hub-based bus service to campus for learners from pickup locations in rural Mason and Manistee counties.


Wheels to Work, which began in the Walker Corridor, is now operating in five counties with the expectation to continue growing throughout West Michigan. Employers share the cost with employees, who get rides to work from neighborhood hubs.


In order to reach low-income and disadvantaged communities and reduce transportation as a workforce barrier, it will be important to understand their preferences in transit systems, particularly as West Michigan continues to create innovative solutions.


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