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What big cities can learn from the rural US about public transit

What big cities can learn from the rural US about public transit

It was splashed across headlines throughout 2020: Billions in additional federal funding is needed to keep the country’s public transportation systems afloat in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and (most notably) New York getting all of the focus. The federal government did stave off many of the severe cuts that were feared with the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act, but those funds are finite.

These investments are critical, but public transportation also exists outside of major urban metro areas, and mobility issues in rural communities are equally as important. Good public transportation in any city is a lifeline for accessing jobs, healthcare and education. While some assume everyone in rural America owns a car, most counties with high rates of zero-car households are actually rural ones. And for those who do own cars, car ownership is too often a massive expense.

As we watch urban areas grapple with slashing public transit services, rural residents and transit leaders are all too familiar with how bare-bones transportation networks can really be. In fact, most rural areas have been cut off from access to effective public transportation for years. But that is starting to change thanks to new transit innovations that rural communities are putting in place, a welcome trend that federal infrastructure dollars could accelerate.

Public transit has always looked different in communities like ours. While subways and large fixed-route bus systems might work well in Atlanta, those aren’t solutions that work well in rural Georgia. Over the last few decades, many rural communities have turned to dial-a-ride systems, in which riders can book rides by phone. As too many rural residents know, those services are rarely convenient or efficient: Rides typically have to be booked days or weeks in advance, pickup and drop-off times are unreliable, scheduling and routing are often done by hand, and these services are expensive for what they provide. It’s no surprise that many rural communities don’t even try to provide public transportation.

Our cities have taken a different approach, one that’s been a game-changer for our communities. We’re using technology to run our own on-demand transit services that are efficient and are drastically expanding access to affordable, convenient and reliable transit. We launched these innovative transit services in a matter of months — not years or decades — by focusing on outcomes for who we want to serve and embracing new ways that get us there.

A city with less than 60,000 residents — the population and density of Valdosta, Georgia — does not warrant fixed-route buses. This meant that, if they don't own a car, thousands of residents could be left without a convenient way to move around the city. As our city has continued to grow, the need for reliable and affordable public transit has only magnified.

That’s why last spring we launched Valdosta On Demand, the city’s first-ever, citywide on-demand public transit service. Since implementation, we’ve received over 14,000 ride requests per month and increased access to jobs and necessary destinations. Forty-five percent of riders use the service to go to work or school, while other trips allow residents to access grocery stores, hospitals, libraries and more. The growth in this service has been explosive and immediately felt by members of the community. A 10-year resident of Valdosta, for instance, shared that before the service, he was forced to rely on friends for rides to his various part-time jobs because he doesn’t own a car and needed to make ends meet. Now he can depend on the on-demand service to easily get to work, see friends and enjoy the city.

Gainesville, Georgia, faced similar challenges. For years the city suffered from insufficient transit service. So we decided to take a step forward and try something new. On Dec. 14, 2020, we launched WeGo to replace three underperforming fixed routes and immediately saw dramatic improvements. In two months, on-demand transit exceeded the ridership of Dial-A-Ride and the remaining fixed-route buses by more than 20%. The service has been so successful and efficient that it now covers the entire county.

The federal government has taken notice. In the new bipartisan infrastructure law, there is a significant new funding program that will provide $300 million this year alone through the Rural Surface Transportation Grant Program. While the program is open to traditional infrastructure projects like building roads and bridges, it specifically enumerates “on-demand mobility services” as eligible for funds. This presents a huge opportunity for rural communities across the country to launch on-demand transit services.

While the population density and geography of rural communities like ours may stand in sharp relief from that of big cities, one thing is clear: Transit is an essential lifeline to many in both of our communities, and it's time we tap into transit technology innovations to provide a better quality of service immediately. We don’t need to wait over 30 years for big, capital-intensive projects to materialize. We can deliver transformative, game-changing transit service in a way that is efficient, flexible and adaptable to a community’s mobility needs. While big cities may get more attention for their transit infrastructure, it’s actually smaller, rural cities like ours that are rapidly expanding tech-enabled transit services in record time.

Posted on April 7, 2022 in News.
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