There is evidence that suggests that introducing or expanding public transportation increases access and use of public transit. Public transportation may also increase physical activity, reduce vehicle miles traveled, and reduce emissions. Research suggests the importance of expanding public transportation in rural communities.
Fixed-route bus systems are the most common form of public transportation in the United States. However, in rural areas, fixed-route services may not always meet the needs of the residents. For this reason, funding for public transportation models in rural communities typically expands beyond the traditional fixed-route bus system to include a variety of other models such as ridesharing, volunteer models, and mobility management models.
Public transportation services in rural communities typically receive a significant amount of funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). FTA funding sources used in rural communities may include:
- Formula Grants for Rural Areas (5311) funds are available to support public transportation in rural areas with less than 50,000 residents.
- Tribal Transit Formula Grants (5311c) formula grants provide funding for public transportation services on and near tribal land in rural areas.
- Enhanced Mobility of Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities (5310) formula funding which are apportioned to rural areas via their state Department of Transportation and can be used for buses, vans, wheelchair lifts, and technology systems, as well as nontraditional funding like mobility management programs, vanpooling, volunteer programs, and improving safety features.
Examples of Public Transportation Models
- Mountain Rides Transportation Authority offers bus routes connecting multiple rural towns in Blaine County, Idaho. A free town bus provides year-round services to 2 communities, a deviated fixed-route is offered for another community, and a commuter bus provides connecting services between 4 communities. In addition to the bus routes, Mountain Rides offers vanpool, carpool, and special needs demand-response services.
- County of Kaua'i Transportation Agency operates a fixed-route public bus service for residents of rural Kaua'i County, Hawaii. In addition to a fixed-route service, the agency also offers door-to-door bus service for qualifying senior residents and individuals with disabilities.
- Marble Valley Regional Transit District offers a public transportation system to residents of Rutland County, Vermont and the surrounding area. Services consist of fixed-route bus stops, a free Medicaid Transportation program, connector services, and “flag down” stops – areas where bus drivers will stop for passengers at an unmarked location if they feel it would be safe to do so.
- Mountain Empire Transit provides demand response services to residents of several rural counties in southwestern Virginia. There is a fee for using the transit service, with a discounted rate for persons over age 60 or under 18.
Considerations for Implementation
FTA funding requires matching funds from the local community based on the particular grant. The federal share for 5311 grants is 80% for capital projects and 50% for operating assistance. For 5310 funds, the federal share cannot exceed 80%. Finding matching funds can be challenging for local communities. However, the match can be in-kind resources from the community rather than cash, so it may be worthwhile for communities to identify alternative sources for the local match.
In communities where public transportation is available, it may not always meet the needs of residents. For example, fixed-route bus services in rural communities often do not run 24 hours of the day, 7 days a week. If residents need to work a night shift or to access appointments outside of normal transit hours, they may not be able to depend on traditional public transit services.
Residents may also have a fear of using public transit services like being unsure if the bus will arrive or even how to navigate and use the service. Communities may consider marketing campaigns and rider education efforts in order to address these concerns.
Although new modes of transportation provide increased opportunities for rural areas, they can also limit utilization of existing, well-established public and private systems. The emergence of real-time personal transportation modes through ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft enable people to travel potentially anywhere at a reasonable cost. These modes of transportation are drawing people away from more traditional modes. While this is a bigger urban consideration, in the coming years it may increasingly impact smaller communities and non-metro areas as ride-share companies expand services. There are some transit programs in the country already working towards partnering with ride-sharing operators to expand the availability of public transit.