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Upstate explores workforce commute solutions

Access to reliable transportation can be a barrier to employee retention. A recent panel discussion hosted by the Upstate Transportation Coalition explored options that are helping employee commuting, from on-demand ride scheduling to organized vanpools.

A Workforce Data Collaborative that was convened in the Upstate last year identified four major barriers to workforce participation: transportation, child care, housing and criminal records.

The data analysis is being shared with Upstate business leaders and policymakers to assist with administrative, regulatory or policy changes that will increase workforce participation and availability, according to Hank Hyatt, Senior Vice President of Economic Competitiveness for the Greenville Chamber.

Surveys conducted among business owners in downtown Greenville, Brookfield/Mauldin and SC-TAC in southern Greenville County revealed that some employers are open to participating in transportation solutions for their employees including park-and-rides and stipends for those who use public transportation.

“Manufacturing represents 64 percent of the companies around SC-TAC and three-fourths of them plan to increase head counts in the next two years,” Hyatt said. “Two-thirds of them are having difficulty filling positions now.”

(L-R) Upstate Transportation Coalition panelists Tim Hibbard, Hank Hyatt, C.J. Asmus and Curtis Askew.

Organized vanpools

Research shows that commute times are cited by employees more than 40 percent of the time as the primary reason for leaving a job. That’s why employers are beginning to take a deeper dive into how their employees are getting to and from work, according to C.J. Asmus of Commute with Enterprise.

Enterprise is addressing this growing employer concern with Commute with Enterprise, the largest vanpool provider in North America. The program has been in South Carolina for a year, with military bases across the state and a few Upstate companies now participating.

“One company in Spartanburg is operating 25 van pools for employees living outside a 15-mile radius of the facility,” Asmus said.

Here’s how it works. Four to 15 coworkers who live near each other pick a central meeting location, then ride together to and from work. Enterprise provides a recent-model SUV, crossover or van, with everyone splitting the monthly fee and driving duties. Enterprise provides full coverage insurance, fuel cards, maintenance, and 24/7 roadside assistance. Some companies pay the monthly vehicle fee and others pay a portion, Asmus said.

“If you consider a 60-mile round trip to work, 20 days a month at a reimbursement rate of 61 cents per mile, that’s $732 a month to operate your own vehicle,” Asmus explained. “That doesn’t include depreciation on your vehicle, taxes, maintenance and insurance.”

On demand scheduling

Employers in other parts of the country are using on demand scheduling systems to get their employees to and from work, according to Tim Hibbard of Passio Technologies. Used primarily for public paratransit services, on demand scheduling is now being used by private companies.

“On demand scheduling involves a combination of tools to facilitate point-to-point transportation, which can be door-to-door, curb-to-curb or one group pickup to a group drop off,” Hibbard explained.

Data is the key

From expanded bus systems to high-speed rail and pod cars, there are distinct views on how to address transportation issues in the Upstate. Differing views must come together and let data dictate the best multimodal strategies for implementation, according to Curtis Askew, President of DataNgine Consulting LLC.

“I am transportation mode agnostic, but I’m conscious of the fact that we can’t sit around and wait for pod cars or the money or the infrastructure because we’ve got labor needs right now,” Askew said. “If we wait forever and a day for money or for public-private partnerships to evolve, companies that are here will start looking for places to relocate.”

Building a business case

When building the case for better public transportation, the discussion should revolve around the labor participation rate rather than the unemployment rate, and proposed solutions must be regional, Askew said.

“In Greenville, we’re at a 66% labor participation rate, but when you look at Spartanburg, Union or Laurens counties, those numbers drop precipitously,” he said. “Our labor market footprint is regional, so our transportation options need to be regionally focused.”

Building a resilient region that can bounce back faster in the face of an economic downtown will require a transportation system with increased accessibility, according to Askew.

“If something happens to manufacturing in our region, we’ve got a whole bunch of unemployed people,” he said. “CDFI (Community Development Financial Institution) funds, New Market Tax Credits and Opportunity Zones all offer ways to increase accessibility and resiliency.  The whole purpose of opportunity zones is to increase accessibility, so rather than building new buildings, let’s invest that money in our transportation system.”

Data should be at the core of any business case for expanded public transportation, Askew believes. Identifying data sources and sharing data is critical in determining the most efficient options and their costs.

“Data doesn’t have any friends, it doesn’t have an ego, it’s just data until you ask a question of it, in which case the answer may be uncomfortable,.”

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