Friday, November 25, 2011

Rethinking mobility in rural areas: a bus for the folks

A few years ago my mother fell from a ladder while picking fruit in our backyard and broke her hip. Fortunately, the doctor determined the injury would heal in half a year, but during the interim period my mother would be limited to a wheelchair and eventually, crutches. Usually an independent individual, the new handicap was understandably frustrating. Unable to make the drive for a quick grocery stop or to even make it up the stairs without relying on someone else, my mother felt trapped.

When thinking about the lack of accessible transportation in rural areas, I am reminded of my mother's frustration with her immobility. It is a handicap, but unlike my mother's temporary condition, it is a permanent one with crippling effects beyond mere inconvenience -- it is a cost to livelihood. For instance,without transportation to medical facilities, forty percent of veterans living in rural areas report
lower health of quality of life scores than those living in urban areas. Without transportation to after-school sports programs, rural kids are twenty-five percent more likely to be obese. Without easily accessible transportation, seniors are less likely to visit family and friends or participate in society.

And with the economic downturn, local governments will only continue cutting transit options and resources. Previous blog posts discussed budget-driven cutbacks of
air routes and post offices. A recent NPR article reports Indiana districts are also cutting free school buses to meet the bottom line. With no sidewalks on rural roads, walking is not an option. Students must rely on their parents to drive them to school, which could take up to half an hour. For some families, their best option is to pay between $40 to $50 monthly to ride the school bus.

With limited funding, what options are there for mobilizing rural residents? In her New York Times
piece "Thinking Outside the Bus," Lisa Margonelli, director of the New America Foundation's Energy Policy Initiative, examines different transportation programs and whether they offer viable solution models. On this basis, she suggests the better approach to the transit deficit is to view potential riders as customers rather than as just a part of an infrastructure problem.

One of the models featured is the Brunswick Explorer implemented in the rural town of
Brunswick, population 21,000. The program features two small fourteen-seat hybrid buses that travel a seven-mile route every hour that can make detours outside the set stops. Riders (ranging from the elderly, mentally ill, disabled, homeless, to college students) pay a nominal fair, but a combination of federal and local sources also fund the Explorer. The executive director, Lee Karker, had worked on two other unsuccessful rural bus systems that based bus routes on "traffic patterns" and not "input from users." When setting up the Brunswick explorer, Karker readjusted his approach to cater to the community needs and letting the program grow "more organically."

With ridership increasing by fifty percent in the past year, the Brunswick Explorer has thrived on meeting these community desires: the bus runs hourly, is environmentally friendly, accommodates those with mobility issues, and goes where the riders want to go, even pulling up to the doors of a supermarket. Nearby towns have also started their own Explorer programs modeled after this one. The challenge, according to Margonelli, will be to expand the route according to passenger desires "rather than to accomplish abstract goals of local government."

While the Brunswick Explorer model has worked for the town of Brunswick, its success raises an interesting notion of how to approach the problem of insufficient transit options in rural areas. In rural areas, schedules change according to ridership patterns and bus stops become infrequent and inconvenient. In turn, ridership further drops and with a bottom line to meet, local governments must cut the buses altogether. But if rural transportation planners approach the problem by catering to the community's needs, perhaps there is a much greater likelihood of successfully getting more out of transit dollars. Given the current state of the economy, it's something worth looking into.


Courtney Taylor said...

Your post brings up a great point about transportation in all communities. Local governments should look to their community's specific transportation needs. This applies to both rural and urban communities.

I think it's tempting for rural communities to model transportation systems after the typical structures we see in urban communities. It seems logical that what works in one place would work in others. As they say, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

A one-size-fits-all approach to local transpiration, however, will not necessarily work. The strict timeline and routes that work for an urban bus system, don't always work for rural communities. Likewise, the flexible schedule of the Brunswick Explorer would be a disaster in an urban community. It makes sense to tailor transit to what the community needs. With that approach, ridership will increase and there will be more money available to create specialized programs like they have in Brunswick.

Scarecrow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
oceguera said...

I agree, transportation is often over looked and at times becomes an after thought. Figuring out bus routes and schedules with the local community will only increase its use versus imposing a fixed schedule which never works even in more urban areas. In my hometown, stockton (pop. 290,000), the local transportation has slowly increased services despite the fact that many rural communities in the surrounding areas depend heavily on these services. Its obvious that the city started to invest in local transportation given the pressures from extended networks of towns outside that area.

JWHS said...

I like the idea of hybrid busing, but a large part of the problem is that many of these areas lack the infrastructure not just in transportation agencies, but the roads themselves.

Moreover, the entry costs into public transport is pretty high, I imagine. Probably more than many rural communities can afford.