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40% of Oshkosh residents don’t drive, according to new state estimates

17 Feb 2022 3:22 PM | WIPTA Admin (Administrator)

City buses converge at the Downtown Transit Center before starting their routes.

By Miles Maguire

At least 40% of the Oshkosh population consists of people who do not drive, according to new estimates from the state Department of Transportation, a situation that creates challenges for individuals as well as the community as a whole.

Among the 10 largest cities in Wisconsin, only Milwaukee and Racine have such a large percentage of residents who do not drive. No other part of Winnebago County has so many nondrivers. In fact in some nearby areas, like the the Town of Oshkosh, the portion of nondrivers is calculated at 0 to 10%.

These figures are contained in an online mapping tool that DOT released late last month. The app is intended to help elected officials, planners and policymakers identify places where there are concentrations of residents who do not drive and then to look for ways to improve public transportation options.

The presence in Oshkosh of a large university campus and the largest prison in the state may make the local situation look more alarming than it actually is, DOT officials acknowledge. But they and public transportation advocates also say the reality is that more than a million Wisconsin residents do not drive.

Comparing large Wisconsin cities

Milwaukee, 40% or more nondrivers
Madison, 30-40% nondrivers
Green Bay, 30-40% nondrivers
Kenosha, 30-40% nondrivers
Racine, 40% or more nondrivers
Appleton, 30-40% nondrivers
Waukesha, 30-40% nondrivers
Eau Claire, 30-40% nondrivers
Oshkosh, 40% or more nondrivers
Janesville, 20-30% nondrivers
Source: Wisconsin DOT

In Oshkosh the DOT analysis indicates that almost 27,000 residents do not drive, including 17,000 who are 15 years of age or older. Even subtracting the 2,000 inmates at Oshkosh Correctional Institution, the city still has about 15,000 residents who are old enough to drive but do not.

Ridership on city buses fluctuates from quarter to quarter and was hit hard by the pandemic. But in the first quarter of 2020, before the full effects of COVID were felt, the total number of riders was 168,178, or about 1,800 per day.

“We know that people who are transportation-dependent have poor health and economic outcomes,” says Denise Jess, executive director for the Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired. “That has implications for a community, but it’s also an economic development issue, especially in the age when we need work forces so badly.”

Jess has been legally blind since birth and says she knows “the world of being a nondriver quite intimately.” She served as co-chair of the Wisconsin Non-Driver Advisory Committee (WinDAC), a panel that was set up to make recommendations to DOT and that was responsible for making the new online app available. 

Every aspect of her life, she says, has been affected by her inability to drive, including where she went to school, what kind of job she could take, where she lives and how much time it takes for her to accomplish routine chores that drivers would never have to think twice about. 

But she believes that the problem is bigger than most people realize and is misunderstood because too many think that “[public] transportation is a charity case” that only affects people with disabilities or low incomes.

Comparing nearby communities

Algoma, 20-30% nondrivers
Appleton, 30-40% nondrivers
Black Wolf, 10-20% nondrivers
Fond du Lac, 30-40% nondrivers
Fox Crossing, 20-30% nondrivers
Menasha, 20-30% nondrivers
Neenah, 20-30% nondrivers
Omro (city), 20-30% nondrivers
Omro (town), 10-20% nondrivers
Oshkosh, 40% or more nondrivers
Oshkosh (town), 0-10%
Winneconne (village), 20-30% nondrivers
Source: Wisconsin DOT

A large part of the nondriver population includes children who are not old enough to drive, “But even if you factor out the 15 and under crowd, we’re still at 22%” of the population not driving, Jess says. 

Young people “have transportation needs, too, pretty demanding ones that parents and caregivers have to get them to.”

“Because our transportation system has historically been designed around private automobiles, not having access to a car can make it very challenging to get to work and school, to get medical care and meet the other needs of daily life,” says Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson.

“To better meet the needs of nondrivers, we have to understand where they live and what mobility resources they can access, and that’s what this tool will help policy makers do,” he says. 

Thompson hopes that local planners will use the mapping tool and “really factor in” options like bus routes and pedestrian pathways as they make land use decisions.

Brooke Berrens works at UW Oshkosh’s Sustainability Institute for Regional Transformations and considers herself a nondriver. She is a new member of the city’s Transit Advisory Board. 

She uses the local bus system, GO Transit, a few times a month and says she is personally satisfied with the service it provides. But in speaking with other riders, she has learned how the lack of access to a car can set off a chain reaction of negative experiences.

She described one woman who had hoped to attend a free meal event but “could not get there in time through waiting for the bus and transferring because of the limited time window.”

“The city has a robust transit system,” says Transportation Director Jim Collins. “GO Transit provides safe, reliable, accessible, affordable bus service throughout the city.”

About 86% of the city’s housing units are within a quarter mile of a bus route. That’s a “pretty decent number,” says Jess. But it’s also a figure that hasn’t changed since 2018. 

One of the features of the new mapping tool is that it allows other kinds of indicators, such as poverty levels, to be loaded in to test whether public transportation is serving low income populations. In Oshkosh there does not appear to be any disparity by income. 

“We always have work to do to make sure that the transportation options we have in the city, whether it’s GO Transit, paratransit, rideshare, or the accessibility of bike and pedestrian options, are actually meeting the needs and circumstances of people in our community,” says Lynnsey Erickson, a member of the Common Council who serves as its liaison with the transit board.

“There are gaps for people who work second and third shifts, have language or cultural barriers, and those who do not have the means for bus passes,”  she says.

“We have also seen how reducing barriers shows the demand for various transportation options, like the 87,000 free rides GO Transit provided to students in Oshkosh in 2021 through funding from the city, school district and private funders.”

Citizens who have ideas for improving public transportation will get a chance in the relatively near future to make suggestions. “We will be updating our Transit Development Plan within the next couple of years, and I’m hopeful we can hear from even more people in the city to make sure we’re meeting the needs we have,” Erickson says. 

One issue in the Fox Valley is that public transportation systems don’t reflect the way that individual communities are economically connected. Oshkosh has a link to Neenah and from there to the Valley Transit system that is based in Appleton. But some transportation leaders think that the region needs to do a better job of coordinating service across jurisdictional boundaries.

Thanks to last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there will soon be money available to improve the alternatives for nondrivers. For transit, “we’re looking at about a 30% increase,” Thompson says.

Wisconsin Public Transportation Association

1502 W Broadway, Suite 102

Monona, WI 53713

(224) 357-6748

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