Rural and intercity transit—the wheels are turning

Aaron and I both attended the 21st National Rural & Intercity Bus Transportation Conference October 26 to 29 in Monterey, CA. For both Aaron, who’s been in this industry for now over 7 years, and for myself, being new to public transit last year, this conference was monumental. We were invigorated by the work being done across the country by agencies and departments large and small to bring greater mobility to the residents of the United States. We were also excited by centrality that technology, accessibility, and rider-centricity were given by all conference participants. These three themes were put front-and-center by a number of presenters, and the dialogue around them revealed just how hard rural transit operators are working to provide the best services they can with often limited resources.

Expanding service

Three state DOT leaders spoke at the Getting Here from There session to talk about the programs they’ve put forth in recent years to expand intercity networks on a state level. Dave Pelletier of Vermont demonstrated the need of thorough study and planning in order to highlight the missing links in current service and discover the opportunities that they offer, as well as the necessity of public commitment to supporting those services. Kyle Emge of Massachusetts showed how thinking beyond administrative borders to consider regional travel-sheds produces a more rider-centric transit experience. Shaun Morrell of Minnesota spoke to the directions that rural and intercity transit can move once a wide net has been set to provide transit to most residents. All three speakers at the session revealed the degree to which public-private partnerships can be used to leverage limited public resources to the greatest public benefit. Through creative—and competitive—financing, all three states have shown that there is a strong undercurrent of demand for intercity transit.

Transit for all

Rural and intercity transit often provides unique challenges for communities th– on public transit the most—disabled Americans. Bennett Powell and Jason Quan of KFH Group, Inc. gave an enlightening presentation detailing the struggles of examining bus stop accessibility. They highlighted in particular that a bus stop must not be an island, but rather a port. To have an accessible bus stop with no access to the residences or businesses it is meant to serve does little to provide mobility to disabled community members. Polly Chapman of Trinity Transit in California gave a related perspective in the same session, Through the Front Door. She reminded us that stop accessibility along some rural routes is not as easy as writing state administrative rules. Bus stop upgrades can be expensive and, unless done strategically, might not provide any substantial service improvement. There is a risk of building “bus stops to nowhere” which must be mitigated in order to maximize the return on funds.

Rider-centric technology

Riders are coming to expect transit agencies to be responsive not only to their needs, but responsive their their preferences. Riders want to be met on their own terms, and to be able to find transit information through the media on which they are most comfortable. As more rural residents and intercity travelers come online not only at home, but through mobile devices, rural and intercity carriers have learned quickly in the last few years that transit technology provides as many advantages for rural systems as it does for urban ones. Aaron moderated the session Changes in On-Board Communication Technology in which we learned of the impressive progress made by Richard Tree at Porterville Transit by adapting new technologies like the Google Transit trip planner and real-time vehicle location technologies. In all, four other sessions included the word technology in their title: the entire national rural and intercity transit network is awash in dialogue about how to use technology to provide better and more efficient services.

We’re excited to see where all those discussions lead—the possibilities are just beginning to be elaborated.