Informed & Empowered: Challenging the High Cost of Getting Around
By Allison Osberg, MN GreenCorps Member (TLC)
There is a real need for infrastructure and policy to support transit and active transportation options—not just for those who can afford to choose transit, bicycling, and walking, but also for those who can’t afford not to choose them. Owning and operating a vehicle is expensive--costing an average of $9,122 a year. For an average middle-class family the cost of transportation is second only to housing. For low-income families—even those buying cheaper cars—the cost of getting around can surpass the cost of housing and comprise more than 30 percent of family income.
Couple the cost of getting to work, school, and appointments with increasing income inequality in the region, and it becomes clear that getting around is a constant challenge for working families just getting by. Because of this, transportation is a huge issue expressed by social service and economic empowerment organizations and yet it continues to be an unmet need among many clients. A contributing factor for why it is unmet is that transportation aid almost exclusively consists of loans or grants for buying a car—sometimes resulting in the purchase of older or less reliable cars with unsustainably high maintenance costs and inefficient mileage.
While the current transportation system is imperfect, more affordable options--biking, walking, transit, car sharing, and bike sharing--are growing in the Twin Cities. And there is growing evidence that interest in these options spans many demographics groups.
Seeing this combination of need and opportunity, TLC developed Transportation Options, a first-of-its-kind program for empowering social service organizations and their clients with a better understanding of their transportation options, how to use them, and their financial impact. Despite a culture where driving is often the default, we found outright and latent interest in using and relying on transit, bicycling, walking, car sharing, and bike sharing in order to save money, be healthier, and still get around safely and efficiently.
In partnership with the Saint Paul-based social service organization Neighborhood House, TLC conducted a series of community-based focus groups and surveys. Neighborhood House’s 14,000 clients are immigrants, refugees, and long-time residents facing challenging situations. Over 90 percent are people of color, 75 percent speak a native language other than English, and most are living at or below poverty levels. TLC listened to these clients’ first-hand experiences and needs in order to create a program that addresses their unique barriers and motivators in accessing and appreciating transit and active transportation.
The result of the listening sessions was a train-the-trainer workshop that TLC offered to Neighborhood House’s Basic Needs staff over two half-days last spring. The workshop was highly experiential, including a Metro Transit bus ride, a visit to Cycles for Change, a trip with Nice Ride bikes, and an HOURCAR orientation. By the second day of training, Neighborhood House staff, some of whom had never ridden the bus before, accomplished their challenge to arrive to the workshop by transit or active transportation.
After the workshop, staff reported that in counseling clients they immediately used the information about the differing cost of transportation options and that “it opens their eyes.” One Basic Needs staff person challenged a group of ten women to try using a different form of transportation; four came back to say the options were easier than they expected. One woman in a focus group was intrigued by the earn-a-bike program offered at Cycles for Change. “My kids would be proud to see me come home on a bike,” she said. TLC learned that shortly after the focus group she enrolled in the program, completed the classes, and earned a bicycle she now uses.
In addition to the workshops, TLC provided an online tool kit of resources for staff and developed cost-calculators that, with clients, they can use for budgeting transportation costs on a case-by-case basis. Neighborhood House also adapted their intake form to immediately target transportation needs and opportunities from the start. Recently, we also supplied each service center with transportation literature, a custom-designed infographic, and a DVD of transportation resources to better assist clients hungry for information and alternatives to owning or operating a car.
Going forward, TLC envisions a comprehensive transportation system that is affordable, healthy, and environmentally friendly while also being equitable—providing all communities with access and availability to this improved system. And, through the Transportation Options program, we are working to build a network of informed and empowered community members who will help to open up the benefits of better transportation options for all.