COVID-19 increases transportation challenges for the working-class, promotes community collaboration

Imagine waking up early in the morning, walking to the end of the road, and catching the first bus to work a frontline job amid a global pandemic. Imagine then coming home after dark, only to do the same thing the next day and still not being able to make ends meet. 

Even before a global pandemic halted the economy and made everyday life a bit more complicated, individuals and families faced daily challenges. 

Those who experience the situation above are, according to the Heart of West Michigan United Way, defined as: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, or ALICE individuals. They are men and women of all ages and races who are employed and earn more than the federal poverty level, yet still face financial difficulties. A single significant financial setback, ranging from a car repair to unexpected medical expenses or even a job loss, could force these households into a desperate situation.

“ALICE describes what some people would call the donut hole between those who are below various federal poverty eligibility thresholds that make them eligible for a variety of federal and state and local programs and people who have a strong, stable income that enables surviving and thriving in the modern economy,” says Dr. Neil Carlson, director at the Center for Social Research at Calvin College. Carlson was also a part of the Michigan ALICE research committee that published a study in 2019. 

Neil Carlson. Photo by Kristina Bird.
According to the 2019 Michigan ALICE Report, ALICE individuals hold integral jobs in the community, from childcare providers and home health aides, to food service workers and mechanics. The success of those in the ALICE community can directly impact the rest of the surrounding community.

Unique challenges for ALICE households
Despite the importance of their roles within the community, these households face significant challenges. They are regularly forced to decide among needs such as preventative healthcare, professional childcare assistance, car insurance, and healthy food options.

One such barrier to success for ALICE households is mobility and transportation. Maintaining a vehicle is costly, weather limits cycling and walking, and public transit, though affordable, is a game of geography and flexible scheduling. 

“For those who were already in living situations that were inconsistent, [COVID-19] has severely heightened that stress and level of inconsistency. Just that level of being able to feel good about how the household is going is, for many families, completely gone,” says Wende Randall, director of Kent County Essential Needs Task Force

“Transportation tends to be an area where the financial commitment is set to the side when there are other commitments that need to be met. Families aren't investing in vehicle repairs if they know their electricity is about to be shut off or if they know their rent is past due, so it kind of creates a ripple effect of negative impact. You’re going to face significant challenges in all other areas of your ability to thrive,” says Randall. 

According to the United Way report, 28% of Kent County is categorized as ALICE. In combination with those living below the federal poverty level, 37% of Kent County households have difficulty meeting their basic needs. 

These numbers include households and living arrangements of all types — adults who live alone, with roommates, with their parents, and families with children. Families with children encompass non-married cohabiting parents, same-sex parents, and blended families with remarried parents. Senior households are also included. 

“These families are above the federal poverty threshold but below a cleverly researched, locally fine-tuned subsistence budget that takes into account just how essential expenses like transportation, health insurance, and most recently, cell coverage are,” Carlson says.  

According to the ALICE study, in 2017, the household survival budget (the bare minimum a household requires to live and work) was well above the federal poverty level of $12,060 for a single adult and $24,600 for a family of four. The annual figures for Kent County’s household survival budget, as of 2017, were $21,624 for a single adult and $64,788 for a family of four.

Of the expenses included in the budget report, transportation rated second only to housing at $340 and $679, respectively, for single adults and families per month. 

“Transportation is necessary to get to jobs, housing, grocery stores, childcare, school, and healthcare providers, as well as for social and faith-based activities,” says Groen. “Though public transportation is cheaper than vehicle ownership, it is unavailable in some parts of the county. Owning a car is essential for many and a purchase most ALICE families struggle to afford. The consequences of buying less expensive vehicles include sacrificing reliability and safety, risking travel delays, and adding costs for repairs, insurance, registration, and traffic fines.”

Impacts of COVID-19 on public transit

According to a recent American Community Survey, more than 90% of the population in Kent County commute by car. Households without a vehicle rely heavily on public transportation on a daily basis. In Kent County, public transit options consist primarily of The Rapid and its bus system of 28 lines. The most advanced of the fleet are the Silver Line and the recently completed Laker Line, each of which features multiple sheltered, elevated platforms resembling train stops.
Photo courtesy of The Rapid
Since the onset of COVID-19, public transportation has been forced to adapt like almost every public space has, while maintaining its essential service to the community. At the beginning of the pandemic, The Rapid reduced hours, routes, and capacity to encourage social distancing and prevent the spread of the virus. Rideshare programs ran on a limited operation. These changes created a challenge for essential employees to get to work without their own transportation.

The Rapid ridership is currently at a 60% decrease from last year, and precautions like masks and social distancing have been implemented across the transit system. Measures like thorough cleaning and sanitizing are here to stay even after the pandemic lets up, says Bill Kirk, business affairs specialist at The Rapid.

“From the beginning, our immediate focus was keeping buses running but keeping them running safely,” Kirk says. “The riders that depend on it the most have had to continue using the service throughout the pandemic. It just speaks to the critical nature of public transportation, especially for the most vulnerable members of our community.” 

Even though ridership has decreased, data shows that it remains utilized as a mode of transportation. Additionally, riders are still traveling to the same places they were before the pandemic.

“We were doing an analysis of travel patterns that started prior to the shutdown orders and extended past them. We actually ended up with a unique data set that showed us that the overall patterns were not changing, but the volumes were,” Kirk says. “We’re not seeing a gigantic shift of where people are going. We’re just seeing a shift in how many people are going there.”

Programs and partnerships assist residents in need 

Outside of general public transit, there are several transportation resources available for those in need. Many of these resources can be accessed through United Way's 211 program. Anyone seeking assistance can call 211 directly and speak with specialists who can connect them with essential services. 
Photo Courtesy of Heart of West Michigan United Way
Through the 211 program, options are available like automobile payment assistance through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and bus fare assistance through various organizations that provide free public transit for events like medical appointments or specific work-related travel. 

There are also programs dedicated to providing gas money, purchasing automobiles, automotive repair and maintenance, community ride programs, and local and long-distance bus services. Additionally, the pandemic has prompted partnerships between various organizations in the community to meet needs.  

Hope Network has utilized its transportation services to deliver meals to distribution sites and offer individuals opportunities to get transportation to pantries or have pantries deliver food to residents. Trusted Rides has begun providing safe rides to the Children's Advocacy Center. 

Focusing on recovery and the future

For many, now is the time to begin preparing for what’s next.

It’s evident that through a vast community network and diverse organizations, Kent County’s ALICE households are at the forefront of pandemic relief efforts, and services like public transportation are more crucial than ever before as communities rebuild and recover.

“I hope we can reduce the stigma around public transportation systems so that it becomes a natural part of how we get from point A to point B. No matter what the destination is, or our background, or [what] our socioeconomic status might be,” Randall says.

“It’s important for us, as we look at how our community will come out of the pandemic, to recognize that public transit is the foundation for a robust transportation or mobility system across the entire region and that it can be for everyone and lead to additional mobility options,” she says.

Voices for Transit is a nine-part series highlighting public transportation in Greater Grand Rapids by exploring the issues that diverse communities face, lifting up the voices of residents, employers, and stakeholders.

This series is underwritten by The Rapid and is editorially independent in our exploration of these themes.


About Ricky Olmos: Ricky is a freelance writer, musician, and photographer living in Grand Rapids. When he’s not writing for Rapid Growth Media, he writes about music for Local Spins, plays keys with Joshua Powell & the Great Train Robbery, and drinks copious amounts of espresso. 

You can reach the editor of this series, Leandra Nisbet, by email at [email protected].
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