Since our founding in September 2017, the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) has generated academic research with the aim of spurring beneficial public debate. Housed at Winston-Salem State University, CSEM has been at the vanguard of empirical research around our local public transportation system, along with a host of other research initiatives.
We continually ask ourselves this question: Can an ambitious, hard-working person of modest means make it here in Winston-Salem without a vehicle?
City bus routes, used primarily by those residents who don’t own vehicles, make it challenging to get to work, doctor’s offices, schools and grocery stores. It’s not made any easier by buses that only arrive once an hour. In addition, most destinations require connections downtown. That’s not the inherent fault of our bus system, but rather an outcome of tight city budgets and a sprawling cityscape that was designed around the automobile.
CSEM has exposed the many barriers to upward economic mobility in Forsyth County, raising public awareness that can lead to beneficial social change. In 2018 we produced a documentary directed by local filmmaker Diana Greene, called Bus Stop Jobs. The 11-minute film featured a day in the life of local bus rider Brittany Marshall. Widely shown in dozens of settings in the city and across the state, the film got people talking. Hundreds of people have told us they didn’t fully understand what challenges bus riders face until they watched the film.
We’re also grateful for the support of the Winston-Salem Transit Authority (WSTA), which allowed us to create the film on site, as well as conduct a 2018 scientific, randomized survey of 215 employed bus riders across all the bus routes. CSEM’s 60-page report details our findings.
For example, the average employed bus rider spends 12 hours a week commuting on the bus, or 8.7 hours longer than the average car rider. That adds up to more than $4,000 a year of lost wages, on average. And that’s just the commute. If you have a car, think about doubling or tripling the amount of time to go to supermarkets, doctor’s offices or further education. Either way, exhausted working parents are losing precious hours nurturing their kids.
Over the past year, we’ve shared our research findings in dozens of venues — on our campus, in churches, civic groups, the public library, government and private organizations.
Others are getting in the act as well. Recently, The Winston-Salem Foundation awarded seven grants totaling $189,000 for creative solutions to transportation challenges. Notably, the foundation embraced a new “participatory grantmaking” model: decisions were made by individuals from the community, most of whom have faced transportation challenges firsthand.
We’re pleased to be playing a role in one of these innovative grants, won by Forsyth Technical Community College, by giving guidance on research questions, data collection and analyses in order to better serve their students’ transportation needs.
In addition, the poverty fight initiative spearheaded by Mayor Allen Joines, The Partnership for Prosperity, has a new leader, John Railey (who has written stories for CSEM). On June 20, the Partnership followed up on CSEM’s work as well as others with a community forum on public transportation. Railey noted, “Transportation is the issue that crosses all others in alleviating poverty: food access, health care, housing, jobs and education.”
All of this shows that a momentum toward innovative solutions is building.
The public bus system will certainly play a role now and in the future. What is changing is how our community is opening up to new models that can work together with the existing bus system. Flexibility is key, because today’s jobs and lifestyles require fluid and dynamic work environments as opposed to punching time clocks that match up with bus schedules.
Community-brainstorming and sponsorship of innovation, such as done by The Winston-Salem Foundation, is crucial in confronting the transportation issue. The solution likely lies in some combination of reform of the city’s bus system, shuttle buses by large employers, more nonprofit shuttle buses, local subsidies for ride-sharing and other innovative ideas.
Many of us are now thinking about transportation as a buffet of choices, rather than a single item on a menu. The underlying idea at CSEM is to promote economic mobility for our lowest income residents, who have the same ambitions as the rest of us. Long term, economically sustainable solutions are key — and if it doesn’t make economic sense, it probably won’t get traction in our community.
We call ourselves the City of Arts and Innovation. I have a distinct feeling that in the coming months and years, this is going to apply to our transportation system as well.
CSEM is here to help make that happen.