Rural Transit: A Matter of Life or Death, and in Danger

In the city, many working people and senior citizens rely on public transit to get to the office, doctor appointments, or shopping. No one questions the value of this service to the public good. The same needs exist in rural areas, but rural public transit is almost invisible. Yet, because most people live so far from commercial and civic centers, transit is just as critical as it is in the city for getting anywhere, if not more so.

At a recent public meeting I attended, a bus driver said flatly that if her service were curtailed, some of her regular passengers would die. They simply would have no other way to get to their medical appointments, and if they couldn’t get there, their health would quickly deteriorate.

Despite its importance to so many people, public transit in rural areas is one of the first things to face the budgetary chopping block during tough economic times. There is a perception among some citizens and legislators that transit is somehow a frill, and that many of the people who use it do not really need it. “Why should the taxpayer subsidize people to go to the mall?” is a question I have heard. Of course, if there were any place in the small towns closer to people’s homes to buy a shirt, there wouldn’t be a need to go to the mall.

Many rural transit service providers do not offer “fixed-route” service like you see in cities. A fixed route is one on which the schedule is very predictable. You catch the bus at a designated stop at a certain time and arrive at your destination at a certain time. That is not the case with most rural transit, which tends to be “demand-response.” You may have to call 24 hours ahead of time to request that the bus stops at your house. Then it may take three hours to get to the doctor’s office, even though in a car it would be a 45 minute trip. That’s because the bus has to pick up 10 other people who live in 10 other scattered locations. To quote the director of a one rural transit agency, “People don’t ride the bus for fun.” They do it, again, because they have no other options.

The population served by rural transit tends to be poor to working class, and they can’t pay too much for the service. Nevertheless, their fares, together with local and state subsidies, are what allow transit to exist. Subsidies are always at some risk, but especially in this uncertain economy, and in a time when some state governments are looking to offload their responsibilities onto localities.

Virginia is one state that is looking at a new model in which they will no longer provide aid to transit providers based on their spending needs. The state may require providers to meet new performance metrics in order to receive aid. The intent, to make sure transit providers that are more efficient are not penalized for it, is good. But an unfortunate side effect that some rural transit providers fear is that they will see their funding diminish. They have few passengers relative to urban providers, and they must cover much more ground to reach their clients.

Surely there has to be a better approach.

(Rural bus stop photo, CC-BY, Flickr user Kecko.)

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


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