The largest challenge facing rural transit agencies today seems to be balancing transit demand with available resources. CTUIR
The latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows about 60 million Americans, or about 20% of the U.S. population, live in rural areas. The generally accepted explanation of “rural” talks about cities and towns with populations less than 50,000, but that is where the similarity ends.
“Rural” looks and feels different in diverse geographic landscapes, ranging from communities atop snow-capped mountains to Indian Tribes living in reservations to farms spanning the nation to small towns nestled in the deep woods. Rural areas are all over — wherever you look. The factor that ties these diverse rural communities together is they all have people living there who need to travel to important places — jobs, school, healthcare, visits to friends and family. Confounding this is the very geography of many rural areas — there are often long distances to the very places residents need to go to and difficult terrains to overcome.
Transportation in these rural areas has evolved from horsecars and trolleys in the 1800s to a myriad of public, private, volunteer, and intercity transit agencies. In 2019, the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) National Transportation Database (NTD) showed nearly 1,300 rural reporters, but the number of agencies providing transportation to residents of rural areas is probably much, much higher.
The National Rural Transit Assistance Program (National RTAP), a program of the FTA administered by the Neponset Valley TMA, serves to create rural and tribal transit solutions through technical assistance, collaboration, training, and transit industry materials. National RTAP reaches thousands of transit agencies and their staff and riders each year through our training and services, and we understand their unique needs. We conduct biennial surveys of transit managers, state RTAP managers, and tribal transit managers to find the pulse of the industry and tailor our outreach to align with the challenges and priorities facing rural transit agencies today. The chart above shows the make-up of the U.S. rural transit industry, based on our most recent survey. You can see transit agencies can be administered through any state, regional, or local government, as well as the profit and not-for-profit world. There is no “one-size-fits-all” rural transit organization.
Who provides rural transit services?
However, today’s rural transit agencies can agree that providing the best and most accessible services they can despite constraints and challenges is a goal to strive toward. Here, we present some of the major challenges faced by rural transit providers and introduce four innovative agencies whose planning and service initiatives have resulted in improved access, mobility, and quality of life for the residents of their communities.
While this seems like a wide variety of organizations providing transit, it can be summarized into three basic types: government, nonprofit, and for profit. Since they are all providing rural transit services, they meet a diversity of needs — mobility, access, accessibility, and affordability.
Challenges Facing Rural Transit Agencies
In the National RTAP 2017 Status of Rural Transit Survey, we asked respondents to tell us about their agencies’ two top priorities for the coming year. Most frequently mentioned were:
- Funding – 12%
- Ridership – 10%
- Training – 7%
- Safety – 5%
- Service Expansion – 4%
Other priorities mentioned frequently included delivering excellent customer service, managing scheduling and dispatching, driver retention, efficiency, marketing, buying new vehicles, technology, and staffing.
While there are a wide variety of priorities listed in the full survey findings, the largest challenge facing rural transit agencies today seems to be balancing transit demand with available resources.
So how do rural transit agencies overcome these barriers to provide outstanding service, mobility, and accessibility to diverse and often far-flung communities?
Innovative Practices by Progressive Transit Agencies
The following four case studies demonstrate the breadth and creativity of rural transit and the leadership of visionary transit managers. We present stories about a few of the many agencies that have seized ideas to operationalize the concept of mobility and access for all.
Greenway Public Transportation
Greenway Public Transportation, a provider of fixed-route, flex-route, and demand-responsive transportation in rural North Carolina through Western Piedmont Regional Transit Authority (WPRTA), saw the need to expand their service to rural areas. They particularly wanted to extend their routes in highly rural areas and provide service to underserved riders. The service expansion initiative took about three years and involved many stakeholders, including county municipalities, government leaders, the Community Foundation of Burke County, representatives from the manufacturing and industry sectors, and non-profit organizations. Members from each of these groups came to the table to form a commission to collaborate with Greenway and WPRTA.
The Community Foundation of Burke County was the champion of this commission, which wrote and applied for grants to fund the new routes. Funding included FTA grant funds and local match, and grants from the Community Foundation of Burke County, among other local and regional funders like the Appalachian Regional Commission and Kate B. Reynolds Foundation, which ensured a two-year trial period of the flex routes. Partners like the Western Piedmont Council of Governments’ transportation planners worked with Greenway staff to write and apply for grants and FTA funding. Through this funding, Greenway was able to purchase new buses and equipment to launch four new flex routes in October 2018, including two in highly rural areas. The routes were tailored to include low-income and affordable housing as bus stops so underserved populations could access transit to get to town. There was a “ride-free” promotional period to help people learn and become acclimated to using public transit. This new route was advertised by the local public housing authority. After implementing the new flex routes, Greenway saw an increase in ridership of nearly 70%, from 1,300 riders in 2018 to 2,200 in 2019.
“In highly rural areas,” says Aaron Kohrs WPRTA mobility manager/specialist, “there is a culture where people need to trust that the bus will be there when it is supposed to be.” One of the stops along the new routes is an integrated health facility, where the staff noticed that the low-income population really began to trust and depend on the bus.
In addition to the new routes, Greenway Public Transportation focuses on transportation partnerships and new technologies to better serve their riders. Some of their recent programs have included ride-alongs, where elected officials take time to ride the buses and meet and share local stories with community riders; “Poetry on Board” bus wraps highlighting community poetry; and technologies like their new real-time app and static map, which uses layers so riders can see deviations in their flex routes.
Travel Washington Intercity Bus Program
Intercity bus service can provide meaningful connections and mobility in rural areas and fill gaps by leveraging the existing national intercity bus networks. An important goal of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for the Travel Washington Intercity Bus Program is to provide mobility and access for rural residents with previously unmet transportation needs. WSDOT leadership had been talking about how to best meet this goal for a long time. About 77% of Washington state residents live within 10 miles of existing intercity stops, and roughly 96% live within 25 miles of one stop. Like many other states, Washington originally managed their intercity bus program on a grant basis, so the routes covered only what the grants covered. Washington wanted to expand the intercity bus program by going beyond existing routes and developing a comprehensive network plan.
"Rather than talk about just getting to the next town over, we wanted to look at intercity transportation as a way for people to get from Walla Walla, Washington, all the way to Miami Beach," explains Don Chartock, WSDOT deputy director.
Planning began in earnest in 2005 when Greyhound entered into a pilot project with WSDOT. After Greyhound cut some of their existing routes in Washington state, they were able to offer WSDOT data and assistance in piloting new routes on a contract basis. The Northwest Motorcoach Association, local chambers of commerce, and locally elected officials also stepped up to be involved in the project, identified issues and needs, and contributed to project success. Many community business owners offered assistance, such as convenience store owners allowing bus shelters on their property. The intercity buses now board in local public transit bays, and the transit system staff sell the intercity transit tickets.
"This was a pilot project that just grew and grew, and became successful because there was a state piece and an industry piece that worked together to form a whole," says Chartock,
The private part of the network counted as a match, and the public portion came from FTA funding. This public private partnership, which started out as a pilot, was codified as part of the subsequent reauthorization, MAP-21.
Not only has this been a highly successful project, it's been exciting and innovative. All the lines (see map below) were named for something special to Washington state. For example, the Grape Line runs through wine country. Every line makes connections that did not exist before, and the Apple Line and the Gold Line even serve rural areas that previously didn’t have transit service, opening up mobility and access to thousands of people for medical care, employment, and more. The routes have served over 92,000 riders over the past three years, and ridership continues to grow.
Washington's statewide intercity bus network
WSDOT conducted a study in 2018, where they analyzed the existing intercity routes, recommended future network expansion alternatives, and identified funding and match scenarios. Looking at the map, it may appear that there are gaps in the state new routes can fill, but the reality of it is some of those areas are populated by mountain ranges and forests, rather than people. The analysis identified the highest need for expansion in southeast Washington. Planning is underway to determine whether this is best accomplished by extending a line or developing a new route.
This project highlights the value of private sector investment and public-private partnerships. WSDOT took advantage of existing services and strengthened them to improve rural access.
SCTDD Mule Town Trolley Service
Mount Pleasant, Tenn.
The South Central Tennessee Development District (SCTDD) provides public transportation in 13 counties in Tennessee, as well as intercity connections. The organization’s mission includes prioritization to seniors, low-income individuals, and persons with disabilities. SCTDD established their Mule Town Trolley Service in 2013. Why did they choose an old-fashioned trolley? First, because they already had some in their fleet, and second, because people seemed to really like old-fashioned trolleys. Also, there is so much history in this area of Tennessee that the agency wanted to commemorate. According to the official Mule Day website, “Mule Day” is an annual celebration that began in 1840 of all things related to mules. The day is held in April in Columbia, Tenn., the “Mule Capital” of the world. Mule Town isn’t actually a town but has become an iconic symbol of this rural neck of the woods. When Mule Town Trolley debuted in Maury County with a new deviated fixed route in 2013 with only two trolleys operating five days a week, people became excited and the service just started growing and growing.
In 2019, Mule Town Trolley has expanded to 12 vehicles and 62 bus stops, transporting over 3,000 commuters a month and more than 118,000 rides since it began operating. The service operates from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and each of the four lines has routes that run every hour. Fares are $1 and transfers are free. The service connects to the commuter bus and provides access to many places the rural residents of Maury County need to go, including the local hospital, Health Department, Housing Authority, Department of Human Services, Career Center, Food Pantry, Community College, Social Security Center, Courthouse, shopping centers, and more. The service planners identified the “hot spots” that riders of SCTDD’s demand-response service frequently asked for to plan routes that connected people to where they most often requested to ride. Since the Mule Town Trolley is a deviated fixed-route service, however, people just need to stand at any of the designated stops and they will be automatically picked up.
Residents of Maury County have embraced the new service, tripling ridership numbers in six years. SCTDD is planning further enhancements to this service by building new lighted bus shelters, providing identifiable locations where it is safe to board, and expanding again to offer a fifth route.
“Mule Town Trolley helps the community. It helps economic growth. I’m proud to be part of a hard-working team that provides individuals from every walk of life personal mobility and freedom,” says Tammie Frazier, Mule Town Trolley's intercity services manager.
Kayak Public Transit
Kayak Public Transit in Pendleton, Ore., is administered by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). The agency operates a rural regional transportation system reaching into southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon, with three fixed routes and four long distance commuter bus services spread throughout four counties and connecting 15 communities. Their transit program is funded through federal grants, state grants, and CTUIR general funds, as well as partnerships with local jurisdictions (City of Hermiston and Morrow County). All their services are provided to the general public and are free. Their transportation service currently provides nearly 100,000 rides per year and celebrated their millionth rider in 2018.
“The Primary Goal of Kayak Public Transit is to provide regional connectivity to all riders of necessity and riders of choice,” says John Tovey, CTUIR’s planning director. “Having transportation options is not a tribal, or a non-tribal issue, but by solving challenges together with their neighbors, everyone wins and supports each other’s community and economic development.”
This vision of regional mobility is not bounded by county or state lines. Rather, it focuses on mobility and access for all. The 2019 Confederated Tribes Comprehensive Plan section on transportation includes the following objectives:
- Develop and maintain a transportation asset system that is safe, environmentally sensitive, and economically sound, while promoting the public health with future transportation in mind.
- Ensure public or personal transportation to meet cultural, economic, personal, employment, health, and other needs for all residents, particularly at-risk populations.
- Ensure required road transportation and transit planning documents are completed accurately in a timely manner and implemented as appropriate.
- Work toward providing access throughout the ceded and traditional-use areas through transportation infrastructure and transit options.
The objectives represent CUTIR’s commitment to the idea of removing obstructions or obstacles as it relates to public transportation. The name “Kayak” is reflective of the Cayuse/Nez Perce word “K’ay’ák which means “to be free of obstructions” and the boat-like canoe known as a kayak, a form of transportation. Some of those obstructions or obstacles were people not having a vehicle, not living in the town where they’re employed, and not having access to education and medical services.
“For the past 20 years, my involvement with Kayak has been very rewarding in helping people remove the obstacles that have hindered their ability to travel about,” says Kayak Public Transit Program Manager Susan Johnson.
Kayak Public Transit was awarded the National RTAP 2019 Tribal System Award for their innovation, efficiency, commitment, and performance in the tribal transit industry, recognizing challenges overcome and best practices that raise the bar for tribal transit.
- One of Kayak Public Transit’s successful innovations was moving from contracted services to internalizing all drivers and operations.
- In 2014, they hired a public transit program manager, a fleet and safety manager, and public transit clerk to keep up with the growing transit services.
- In 2018, Kayak Public Transit opened a new transit hub with cooling and heating for the comfort of their passengers.
- Another successful advance was CTUIR’s use of a computer-aided planning tool — Remix — to see where to put routes and community connectors to support highly rural communities with fare-free feeder services. To this end, they worked in partnership with the Oregon Department of Transportation and adjacent counties to implement a shared regional vision together.
Kayak Public Transit has also demonstrated the bridging of resources by collaborating with local, state, and national entities for solutions to overcome many challenges. Management members of Kayak Public Transit have seats or have participated in Oregon Transportation Association, Oregon Public Transportation Plan Advisory Committee, ODOT Rules Advisory Committee for the new Special Transportation Improvement Fund, and Umatilla County Special Transportation Improvement Fund Committee. Kayak frequently meets with various communities for rider outreach and meet at least quarterly with connector services to coordinate schedules to maintain an efficient regional system.
What We Can Learn
What do these rural transit agencies have in common? Strong leadership, customer-focused attitudes, and the willingness and ability to do whatever it takes to provide rides for their passengers to the places they need to get to — jobs, education, healthcare, and more.
For each of these systems, there is a technology piece, a human resources piece, a relationship building piece, and a marketing piece. What makes rural transit different? Technology is more important when you have four-hour headways. Aggregating demand can become very costly if you don’t have the technology infrastructure in place.
Each of these examples tells a story and shares a lesson:
~ Greenway Public Transportation strove to build partnerships to improve the mobility of riders with many needs. They expanded their horizons and engaged stakeholders to recognize the interdependence of the rural communities they serve.
~ The Travel Washington Intercity Bus Program expanded the definition of financial partnerships to include private investment in rural intercity access. This program is now being implemented in 26 states, with 76 feeder routes, and serving more than 400 communities.
~ SCTDD Mule Town Trolley Service has built on historic rural identity to invite community members to use their modern transportation services. The service is valuing the community and responding to changing needs.
~ Kayak Public Transit has implemented tribal values and building resources for the tribes and for everyone in the region. Their leadership created a new framework for diverse communities to build a shared vision.
National RTAP works with rural transit agencies around the country to provide the advantage of the best practices these model organizations have developed and refined. We look forward to supporting the needs of these and many other agencies as they evolve and continually expand the myriad of transportation possibilities.
Robin Phillips is Executive Director and Cara Marcus is Resource Center Manager for National RTAP