More resources, yes. But what public transit agencies really need are more flexible resources.

Guest blog post by Dawn Distler, CEO, Akron METRO RTA

Editor’s note: As employers explore potential strategies to attract and retain talent in today’s competitive labor market, they would be wise to consider how people get to work. Among employers who indicated they’re experiencing a talent shortage in the regional “Where Are the Workers” survey, just 4% have offered transportation services or commuter benefits over the past two years as a talent acquisition/retention strategy—with 3% considering it in the near future. Yet through our work with The Paradox Prize, we know that the limitations of traditional transit routes combined with decades of sprawl leave many workers “stranded”—unable to afford a car to get to work, and unable to get a job without a car. Soon, we’ll have a better sense of just how much transportation matters to Northeast Ohio workers from our working-age adult survey, but in the meantime, we invited METRO RTA’s Dawn Distler to explain how Greater Akron’s public transit system, alongside workforce partners like ConxusNEO and individual employers, is striving to develop a more coordinated approach to get more people to work and create an environment that better serves both people and businesses.

Public transportation at its core is about improving access to opportunity, and access to opportunity through equitable transportation supports economic growth. At METRO RTA, we focus on providing frequent bus service where it is most useful and where it is most needed, with the goal of benefiting Summit County as a whole in addition to the individual riders we serve.

In Northeast Ohio, there are areas where fixed-route bus service can be infrequent, indirect or inefficient between areas of job growth and areas of high unemployment, given the development patterns of our region. But changing a fixed route or testing a new one to align with workforce needs is a big undertaking. Moreover, just like other employers, transit systems nationwide are faced with rising costs and workforce shortages. We want to adapt to the needs of our community but are constrained by limited resources. In short, we need more resources—and those resources must be flexible enough to enable necessary adaptation—to meet employment needs in today’s world.

Transportation challenges can have a substantial impact on a person’s ability to get to a job, but there are issues that go beyond whether a bus connection is possible. If traditional transit service isn’t a viable option due to area density or service frequency, agencies must explore innovative mobility solutions to better meet the needs of both workers and employers.

When The Paradox Prize competition was announced in 2019, METRO’s goal was to develop a mobility solution to better connect workers and employers in the county. METRO worked closely with Summit County’s workforce sector partnership, ConxusNEO, to better understand the workforce transportation needs there and establish a service in support of these needs. The result was FlexRide, a door-to-door, on-demand service connecting workers living in the city of Akron to employers in northern Summit County. Soon, requests for service came from neighboring Portage County, and the program expanded to connect Akron residents to jobs in Richfield, Green, Cuyahoga Falls, Stow, Hudson, and Twinsburg.

Since its inception in 2020, METRO’s FlexRide has established successful partnerships with several employers who, in turn, have been successful in recruiting for open positions by advertising FlexRide as a transportation option. And FlexRide has provided METRO an opportunity to make deeper connections with several employers, gaining a better understanding of their needs. A prevailing influence in the success of this pilot is flexibility—not just in the rides themselves, but in how the project emerged. Funding from The Paradox Prize enabled us to explore and execute a service that capitalized on existing assets to address an identified need, and to do so without being forced to suspend critical existing transit services to pilot a new solution.

Part of METRO’s ongoing Reimagine METRO process is improving service—where we have resources to do so—and reducing the overall trip time for more people in our community. Where that is not possible with existing resources, METRO is looking to expand partnerships with community leaders, groups and organizations to help close the transportation gap through innovative mobility options, like FlexRide. To be successful in enhancing mobility going forward, public transit needs flexibility to develop solutions that can address the community’s needs as they continue to evolve.