Depending on the day, Kalamazoo resident Mike Somner can spend up to an hour roundtrip riding the Kalamazoo city bus.
Over a year ago, Somner’s beat-up car broke down. When he didn’t have the money to repair it, Somner became dependent on the Kalamazoo Metro Transit System to get to and from work.
“It’s hard enough to get by without having to worry about not getting to work because I can’t pay for a car,” Somner said.
Public transit is a necessity for many people living below the poverty line in Kalamazoo. According to a 2012 Kalamazoo Area Transportation study, 78 percent of Metro Transit riders had a family income level below $25,000, and 70 percent had no other form of transportation.
“Addressing poverty is a complex issue and one of the barriers to success when talking to both job agencies and educational agencies is reliable transportation,” Sean McBride, the executive director of the Kalamazoo Metro Transit Authority said. “Public transit is the way individuals can better their positions in life through reliable transportation.”
The Kalamazoo Metro Transit system is funded through a combination of state and federal funding and voter approved millages. Millages make up 35 percent of Kalamazoo Metro Transit funding and state and federal grants make up 45 percent. Rider fares make up the remainder of the funding.
Voter approved millages are extremely important, McBride said. With Kalamazoo having two separate millages that total to around $5 million dollars, these millages are essential to how the transit system is funded.
Though the transit authority plans the voting time and their campaigning in a way that if a millage is not passed, they have time to come up with a new plan, because it could cause real problems if a millage is not passed, McBride said.
“Without voter millages, we not would be providing the level of services we provide,” McBride said.
Millages also have an effect on the state and federal grants that Kalamazoo public transit receives. Without the millages, the Kalamazoo Metro Transit Authority has less leverage with state and federal funding, as they are expected to match government investments, McBride said.
With this funding, Kalamazoo public transit has recently made changes which will improve the experience for all riders, but those below the poverty line in particular, McBride said.
More frequent stops were added, so that a bus comes to a stop every half-hour instead of every hour. This makes the bus system more convenient to riders, McBride said.
In addition to more frequent stops, Sunday routes and an extension of hours to midnight were added in Feb. 2016.
“For the first time in 50 years, we are offering bus service on Sunday,” McBride said. “That’s been a major change.”
McBride said these changes have been highly requested.
“One of the key benefits of Sunday and late service is that people rely on public transit for employment,” McBride said. “Lot of people work just as much during late hours and night hours; not everyone works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”
The biggest surprise for McBride regarding these changes is the number of riders on Sundays. He had expected there to be a drop in ridership, but early number have shown that, per hour, ridership on Sundays is equal to ridership on Saturdays.
“It just goes to show how important mobility is every day of the week to those who use public transit,” McBride said.
The Kalamazoo Transit Authority recognizes that not everyone can afford the $1.50 one-way fare for public transit. Therefore, they work with local nonprofit organizations who provide metro tokens for those who cannot afford them on their own.
The YWCA is one of the organizations in Kalamazoo that provides tokens for their clients who cannot afford it. Cathy Brown, the YWCA’s director of victim services, estimated that they give away between 50 and 75 tokens a month.
“When our clients are independent, they need to go to places on their own, but they don’t have a car or they don’t have cab fare,” Brown said. “That’s when we give them tokens.”
No matter how you are involved, public transit is meaningful to the Kalamazoo people, McBride said. Public transit allows those who are below the poverty and without a vehicle to stay independent and can add a whole new dimension to someone’s life, he said.
“We have a great community,” McBride said. “There’s a lot of different ways to make a difference in it, and this is one of them.”
Mike Somner said he is just grateful that he can use the bus system to get to work during the week, and now, get out of the house on Sundays.
“I just need [public transit],” Somner said. “I feel like a lot of people do.”
This series was made possible by Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice journalism award.