Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
As the state spends millions to lure under-40 workers from across the Midwest, local transit riders are stuck in place.
MILWAUKEE, WI—In January, the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission launched a $1 million campaign asking Chicago’s Millennial transit commuters to consider a move to the Dairy State.
“Catch the train or catch some air?” reads one advertisement plastered inside Chicago Transit Authority trains. A haggard young straphanger, sweating under his collar, was shown side-by-side with a grinning snowboarder taking a jump. “Rush hour or happy hour?” reads another ad featuring an assembly of rooftop drinkers, mid-chuckle. “Bump elbows or bump on the court?” asks another centered on a lakeside volleyball match. The tagline: “Wisconsin: It's more you.”
Wisconsin wants “more you” because it has a labor shortage. Since 2010, outmigration has outpaced natural births and new arrivals. The number of working-age young people is growing at a snail’s pace. With the unemployment rate at a historic low of 2.9 percent, employers are struggling to fill roles across industries and skill levels as job openings grow in healthcare, IT, service industries, and construction. Wisconsin’s department of workforce development estimates that by 2024 there will be about 45,000 open jobs without workers to fill them, the Wall Street Journal reported this year. The state recently approved $6.8 million to expand the “more you” campaign to lure veterans, University of Wisconsin alumni, and under-40s in other Midwestern cities.
The question is, more who? While some ads focus on housing, comparing Chicago’s cramped walk-up flats to Wisconsin’s affordable three-bedroom homes, much of the campaign makes hay of Wisconsin’s average commute time—a mere 22 minutes. According to the logic of the ads, driving a short distance beats taking transit, since your longer commute on the El could presumably be better spent enjoying Wisconsin’s distinctly suburban pleasures.
That seems to leave little room for people who take public transportation because they like it, as many Chicagoans do, based on the indignant response in local media outlets earlier this year. Nor does it leave room for the many riders for whom transit is the only option. That seems to be a fair description, too, of how Wisconsin has approached public transportation for people who already live there: Transit ridership in Milwaukee County, where the vast majority of the state’s impoverished population lives, has steadily declined since 2001, counter to national trends. That has tracked closely with dramatic cuts to service. Milwaukee also saw the greatest dip in ridership between 2016 and 2017 out of 35 major U.S. metros, according to a TransitCenter analysis.
I traveled to Milwaukee last week for a conference, and to see what was going on. I found a lakefront city with a pretty historic core, walkable nightlife strips, and new construction on the rise. Downtown, tracks are being laid for a new streetcar; there are coffee shops and river cruises and a spectacular Santiago Calatrava-designed art museum with “wings” that flap at noon. And the region’s job market is growing. Thanks to $4 billion in tax benefits from Governor Scott Walker, the Taiwanese LCD screen manufacturer Foxconn is setting up a plant in neighboring Racine County, with the promise of 10,000 construction jobs and 13,000 permanent ones.
In spite of all this, poverty is on the rise in Wisconsin, and it’s increasingly concentrated in its largest metro. Milwaukee is also consistently ranked as the most racially segregated city in the United States. Just 6 percent of Wisconsin residents are black; Milwaukee County is home to nearly 70 percent of that entire population.
Borders, internal and external, define the metro of 1.5 million. There’s the 16th Street Viaduct that divides north and south Milwaukee—a span that goes from “Africa to Poland,” according to a longstanding racist joke. There’s 60th Street near North Avenue, which draws a line between the 90 percent white suburb of Wauwatosa and the city proper. There’s Holton Street, which separates the gentrifying lakeside area of North Point, with its Whole Foods and arthouse cinema, from Harambee, a neighborhood with ties to the Civil Rights movement that is almost exclusively black. In a core North Point ZIP code, about 9 percent of families live in poverty; in a core Harambee ZIP code, nearly 38 percent of families do, according to census data.
Poverty makes it a lot harder to maintain a car and all of its trappings, so while you don’t see many people walking around here, ownership rates are relatively low. “There are people in the inner city who do not have cars, or they might have cars, but they don’t have insurance,” said Linette Tillmon, a 51-year-old cafe worker who has spent her entire life in Milwaukee, bouncing between neighborhoods in its northern reaches. I met her on the job as a cook at a downtown museum café. “What are they supposed to do get to all those new jobs?” she said.
Tillmon was pointing out something academics and activists here have long mapped, studied, and fought against: the profound spatial mismatch between where jobs are in Milwaukee, and where the workforce that needs jobs the most already lives. Unemployment may be low across the state, but it’s much higher in Milwaukee and much, much higher among African Americans. As Willie Wade, the chief marketing officer at the county workforce development board, told the local publication Urban Milwaukee: “2.9 percent [unemployment] means that every white person in the state has a job.” As of 2010, “barely half” of Milwaukee’s black men were employed, according to a 2012 report from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, compared to 85 percent in 1970, when factory jobs kept the city’s workforce busy.
One of the drivers in the decline in black employment, then, has been the loss of manufacturing; a string of hollow warehouses and factories along the Menomonee River speaks to that loss. But the suburbanization of Milwaukee’s employment opportunities has driven what jobs are available out of reach for workers in need. According to another 2015 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study, Milwaukee lost 27,858 jobs from 1994 to 2009, while Washington, Ozaukee, and Waukesha Counties gained some 56,271. Nearly all of the metro region’s job growth since the 1980s has taken place in suburban counties, where few working-age black men live, and where transit links are scarce.
The high-profile Foxconn deal is an example of these disconnects, as Susan Nusser recently reported in Next City. Racine County is south of Milwaukee, while the long-term effects of redlining and discriminatory mortgage practices have kept most of the area’s black residents in the northern part of the city. Some of these neighborhoods are still bordered by disused industrial strips. Yet Foxconn didn’t locate there. Most of the hiring mandates attached to the project are tied miles away to Racine County; just ten percent of the construction jobs could possibly go to unemployed residents in Milwaukee County. What’s more, it’s not clear how car-free workers would be able to get there: In April, Matt Maroney, the state’s director of strategic economic initiatives, told Urban Milwaukee that the state had no set plan for providing public transportation to the project site. Local officials are pressing for it.
Transportation gaps run deep in a city where roughly 18 percent of the population does not own a car and, crucially, where regional connections are nonexistent. Famously, one of Scott Walker’s first moves upon taking the governor’s office in 2011 was to return $810 million from the federal government that would have gone to building a high-speed rail connection between Milwaukee and Madison. His aversion to transit goes way back: Serving as the executive of Milwaukee County, Walker told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2007 that “he wanted to grow the economy so much that poor people would be able to buy cars and leave the bus behind,” according to Streetsblog.
Milwaukeeans are indeed leaving the bus behind, but not because they’ve all grown wealthier. It’s largely because of service cuts. Between 2001 and 2011, service reductions and fare increases under then-county executive Walker resulted in a 22 percent decline in bus route miles by the Milwaukee County Transit System. According to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study from 2015, that led about 1,324 fewer employers in the region to be served by transit than would have been the case if the old transit system were still in place, adding up to as many as 41,828 jobs no longer served by transit.
Some of that lost service has been recovered, thanks to a lawsuit by two Milwaukee civil rights organizations against the state of Wisconsin over a $1.7 billion freeway project that, they argued, only served suburban dwellers. A $13.5 million settlement in 2015 provided funding for two additional bus routes to connect nine ZIP codes in northern Milwaukee to industrial jobs in the suburbs. But that was for a limited time only; funding for the JobLines buses will expire in December. Roughly 1,000 workers who take the buses every day to work could be stranded if the routes are dropped. “They don’t have ways to get to places. They can’t do Uber. They can’t do Lyft,” Marilyn Miller, a local Lutheran pastor and community activist, told a local CBS station in April. If and when that happens, according to one of the UWM studies, the transit system could be about as lacking as before.
Community advocates say that it’s hard to raise support for better transit in a city where the majority of riders are profoundly reliant on it, and where transit is viewed as more of a social service for the poor than as a shared amenity—unlike, say, roads (though Wisconsin’s roads are also in terrible shape). A proposed bus rapid transit line is supposed to connect the city from east to west, but it’s unclear how rapid it will be since the city is restricting its use of dedicated lanes. The streetcar project—a two-mile starter line that wings out to neighborhoods near downtown—has promise, but it doesn’t connect the areas where most of Milwaukee’s transit riders live, said 34-year-old Nick DeMarsh, an organizer with the Milwaukee Transit Riders Union. Like many modern streetcar lines, it’s aimed more at tourists, plus the people DeMarsh calls “Millennial downtown workers” living in the gentrified Third Ward, a neighborhood featured in a “More You” ad.
That’s the thing about those ads, DeMarsh said. There’s nothing wrong with trying to attract more workers to the state of Wisconsin, but why does it have to be at the expense of transit riders? Likewise, he said, if the city is going to build a streetcar, shouldn’t it connect the neighborhoods where people need ways to get around? “It often seems like when terms like ‘Millennial’ are bandied around, it’s regarding one type of Millennial, oftentimes a white Millennial,” he said. DeMarsh views the ads with a cynical eye—essentially, as a piece of would-be Walker campaign material, pandering to voters with a distaste for urban settings and public transport. “In a city as segregated as Milwaukee, that’s definitely part of the puzzle,” he said. “It’s city versus suburb.”
Yet public transportation tops the list of what some of Wisconsin’s young movers and shakers would like to see in their state, and not just the transit advocates. Corinn Ploessl, the 29-year-old event manager at the Madison Visitors Bureau, is passionate about Wisconsin and would never choose to live anywhere else. But if she were governor, transit would be the first item on her agenda. “If we don’t tackle the transportation issue sooner rather than later, we’re going to have an issue if we do bring in more talent,” she told me last Thursday on a stroll down State Street, the capital city’s walkable shopping corridor. Ploessl has a brother in St. Paul, Minnesota who can walk two blocks from his front door to the Green Line, the new light-rail corridor that’s bridging job gaps and connecting neglected neighborhoods in the Twin Cities. That makes her envious.
Back in Milwaukee, I met for coffee in the Third Ward with Angela Damiani, the 32-year-old president of NEWaukee, a “social architecture” firm that hosts events designed to bridge Milwaukee communities. She, too, looked wistfully to Minnesota, whose economic recovery since 2010 has outpaced Wisconsin’s by almost any measure, thanks in large part to the growth of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Those cities have their own equity challenges. But whereas Wisconsin’s state leadership has slashed taxes, shrunk government, and disenfranchised unions in recent years, Minnesota has boosted the minimum wage, tightened the social safety net, and ramped up investments in infrastructure and education. It seems to show.
“I don't think public transit should only exist for those who can't afford to have a car,” Damiani said. “When you invest in those sorts of shared amenities, doesn’t everyone benefit?”
The now-$8 million “More You” campaign isn’t meant to be in lieu of serious state investments, leaders at the Wisconsin Economic Development Commission assured me. The ads are a playful provocation, a way to get young-ish people thinking that a state associated mostly with cheese, football, and farmland could be a dynamic place to change careers or start a family. “Even if our ads are hitting you, and it’s not the right time to make a move, we want to make sure that your perception of our state is correct, so that now that you’re thinking of it, we’re in your consideration,” said Kelly Lietz, the vice president of marketing and communications for the WEDC.
Yet the perception that Wisconsin’s leaders have been hostile to transit—and more accurately, transit riders—appears to be correct. Chicagoans may resent the ads on CTA trains, but you can bet transit-dependent Milwaukeeans are the ones feeling the pain.