Skip to main content

Tribal Populations

As of 2011, 118 tribal transit programs were operating throughout the country, according to a report from the Small Urban and Rural Transit Center about tribal transit funding. These programs provide transportation to tribal populations on tribal lands and beyond, and are an important part of everyday life for these communities. Providing reliable and cost-effective transportation on tribal lands remains challenging due to geography and funding.

The large expanse of many tribal lands and their relative seclusion from other populations makes it challenging for tribal populations to access healthcare. In addition, transportation program planners in tribal areas should be aware of the strong cultural and familial connection many native people have with their lands. Tribal lands are often used to grow food and other resources for the community, as well as sources of renewable energy. Land use planning is important to consider when developing transportation programs. Tribes should be included in the planning stages for any program that services their community. Another key consideration is fluctuating gas prices, which can impact the costs of implementing transportation programs. Tribal populations spend an estimated one-third of their income on gasoline.

Of particular concern for tribal populations are motor vehicle crashes, which are the leading cause of unintentional injury for tribal populations ages 1 to 44.

Tribes and their respective states have differing relationships, thus it is important to be aware of this and appreciate tribes' right to sovereignty and their respective transportation needs when establishing transportation programs. Tribal sovereignty, which is the right to self-government, allows native populations to live by tribal and federal law only. Many federal transportation programs provide funding directly to the tribe, but some programs are administered at the state level. Some tribes prefer not to work with the State to receive federal funds because of their status as sovereign nations. As such, tribes may decide to enter into an arbitration to settle the dispute and come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. Tribes may also choose to apply to become direct recipients of federal funds. This would allow them to bypass the state government altogether.

Resources to Learn More

Crossing Great Divides: A Guide to Elder Mobility Resources and Solutions in Indian Country
Document
Discusses the impact of transportation services on healthcare access for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian older adults. Provides information about transportation funding opportunities to meet the needs of elders living on reservations. Describes Title VI Aging Services and Tribal Transit Programs.
Organization(s): National Center on Senior Transportation, National Rural Transit Assistance Program
Date: 2010

Developing, Enhancing, and Sustaining Tribal Transit Services: A Guidebook
Document
Describes challenges tribes face when developing a transit system. Designed to assist with a variety of needs including clients with special needs in employment, education, healthcare, and other human services.
Organization(s): Transportation Research Board
Date: 2012

Public Transportation: Federal Role Key to Rural and Tribal Transit
Document
Examines the Federal Transit Administration's rural transit program, in terms of funding, changes in the program from 2009 to 2012, and challenges faced by providers.
Organization(s): Government Accountability Office
Date: 6/2014