Mobility managers across the country know that people’s travel patterns do not adhere to city and county boundaries; this is also true of the Wichita, Kansas region. Yet there are age-old obstacles to coordinating the diverse transportation services to match those much more regional travel patterns.
On September 29, NCMM facilitated a full-day meeting for community stakeholders from Wichita’s home county, Sedgewick, plus two adjacent rural counties—Harvey and Butler. This meeting followed a request by Jessica Warren, the Wichita mobility manager, for assistance from NCMM to facilitate the meeting.
The focus question that needed to be addressed that day quickly crystallized: How might the current structure of jurisdiction-limited transportation services evolve to match regional travel patterns?
The meeting began with an effort to “get the data into the room.” Attendees—who included mobility managers, senior center transportation directors, elected officials, city managers, county transit directors, and the regional MPO— contributed data on the perspectives of community members, transportation providers, and local businesses related to transportation needs. They also viewed maps of existing services that showed major destinations and demographic information for the three-county region.
Several key insights emerged from these data:
- The diverse levels of income, access to resources, and unmet needs represented within the three counties make support for a regional approach difficult. The three-county area is a mix of very low income residents, who tend to be more reliant on public transportation, and residents with much higher incomes who travel almost exclusively by private automobile. This mix leads to divergent views within the three communities; for example, many residents are completely unaware of the pockets of population that do not have reliable access to a private vehicle or other reliable means of transportation. This unawareness leads to a lack of empathy, and as a follow-on, lack of political and public will to improve transportation services.
- Limited transportation options are impacting businesses’ ability to recruit and retain workers. Yet, again, many employers are unaware of the extent of this issue and how to address it. Their willingness to implement transportation supports also varies. During times of full employment, such as the current era, employers are more receptive to entertaining ways to contribute toward employees’ commutes as a way to make working for them more attractive. On the flip side, when there is a tight labor market, and several candidates vying for the same job, employers do not see the need to add additional benefits to attract employees. To top it off, many employers have never analyzed data on the impact of a lack of reliable transportation on their workforce turnover, and the cost of that turnover to their bottom line.
- Transit’s own difficulties in recruiting and retaining drivers, plus the difficulty finding local match, is hampering their capacity to expand services. The transportation services in this three-county region are somewhat typical of mixed urban-rural regions: Sedgewick Co. has a robust fixed-route transportation service within the city, and offers demand-response in the small towns and areas within the county but outside Wichita city limits. Harvey and Butler Cos. offer demand-response service within the boundaries of their small towns, with extremely limited to no service connecting those small towns to each other or to the Wichita urban area.
- Residents who need transportation services often don’t know what is available; this lack of information is exacerbated by residents’ perception that existing public transportation are for “them,” however each person defines “them.” Even for those who do know services exist, the limited jurisdiction-bounded nature plus limited hours of those services leads them to seek other options.
- And finally, political jurisdictional issues limit regional solutions. The group learned about one county that espoused the philosophy that “we need to do whatever it takes to support our county’s residents.” Yet another county, which has no county-level transportation service, had not coalesced behind a similar philosophy; instead, transportation was run on a town-by-town basis.
By the end of the meeting, the group realized there were several important steps it needed to take to address the focus question, as follows
- Define a regional voice that can speak on behalf of all levels of users and potential users plus all types of stakeholders. This regional “voice” would attempt to meld together different perspectives and priorities from the three counties.
- Identify community champions. The group would identify those residents/leaders/agencies who understand the importance of a vibrant transportation network to support the economic development of businesses and individuals and design a way to support their input into the regional discussion.
- Identify, gather, analyze, and format data. Crucial to the group’s effort to weave a regional identity is the task of gathering data to depict regional travel patterns and needs. One additional data-based task would be to follow the journey of a “transportation dollar” to show how funds spent on transportation in one jurisdiction not only supports economic activity within that jurisdiction but also within neighboring jurisdictions.
- Design and coordinate a regional education campaign. The group will create an education campaign, bolstered by the assembled data, that will foster a shared regional vision for transportation. It was important for the group to have a champion, who will be the Wichita mobility manager, to lead all these efforts, as it was acknowledged that most attendees lack the capacity to devote the time needed to this project.
This project highlighted the importance of mobility managers in regional coordination: Jessica recognized the need for outside support, pulled together essential stakeholders, and will now champion the group’s work. Well done Jessica!