Investing in transit improves quality of life in rural areas

By Mary Ebeling

Not all transit riders live in urban areas; in fact, 40 percent of transit riders live in areas defined by the census as rural.

Addressing rural transit needs has emerged as a major challenge for transit agencies, municipalities, and human services agencies as greater numbers of people in rural areas seek transit services for their daily trips. In rural areas, the absence of transit supportive development densities, segregated land uses, circuitous road networks, long distances between trip origins and destinations, and lack of coordinated transit systems can create substantial barriers for rural transit agencies and those who depend on the service.

Lack of mobility in rural areas impedes economic development, and challenges the ability of people to get where they need to go, whether it is to school, medical appointments, jobs, or errands. The patchwork of transit providers in rural areas – including public agencies, nonprofits, and private companies – creates inefficiencies, driving up costs to both provider and rider.

Transit providers face significant challenges in meeting the growing demand for rural public transit. Some communities have begun to address this challenge in creative ways, making substantial advances in the provision of public transportation. Improved bus networks, downtown circulators, intermodal transit centers, and intercity transit improvements have helped rural communities address the unique mobility challenges that stem from large geographic distances, an aging population, and limited financial resources.

Case studies shed light on many of the creative options and opportunities rural transit operators have implemented as they strive to fill the need for public transportation in their communities. One county in Vermont offers an instructive example of successful rural transit system with service that has become a community asset.

Addison County Transportation Resources (ACTR) is the public transit operator for Addison County, Vermont, located between the cities of Rutland and Burlington. Within the 770-square-milerural county, ACTR operates a mix of fixed route, commuter, and demand-response service.

In the early 2000s, the system suffered from low ridership and inconsistent service, and struggled to increase their public visibility. Since then, ACTR has built its success through partnerships with adjoining transit systems, the Vermont Agency of Transportation, tourism and business groups, and local universities, including Middlebury College and University of Vermont. ACTR also readily adopts new technologies, such as Google Maps for transit, and has installed additional bus stops to better meet rider needs. These facts suggest that maintaining partnerships, openness to new technologies and public visibility are key for the success of rural transit agencies.

The best example of ACTR’s impact on the community is its high number of “choice riders,” those that have another transportation choice, but choose to use transit anyway. These choice riders are both regular and occasional: commuters, college students, youths, skiers and other tourists, and people traveling on everyday activities. Recently the Vermont Agency of Transit gave ACTR funding to provide 40 percent more service, yet ridership is actually up 44 percent after only eight months of expanded service.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst with SSTI.