Narrow transportation

Scope and Limits of Rural Public Transit

Let’s play Jeopardy.

Here are the answers to what question? A woman in transitional housing has to go to work; a person must go from prison to the probation office; a veteran needs to go to the VA hospital; a prisoner must go to the podiatrist; a person under sixty without a car must renew their license, buy groceries, vote, or obtain a document from county offices; a visitor who has landed at Crawfordsville Regional Airport needs to be driven to Ironman.

The question: What is… the need for public transit in a rural community?

Every community has its own diversity issues, which planners and leaders must account for, always asking themselves: are we serving everyone, even the invisible and silent voices?

It is assumed that living in a rural community is a compromise. In return for all the benefits – a lower cost of living, quiet, access to nature, and a sense of place – we assumed that everyone would own a car with its insurance and maintenance costs. But survey data from the 2019 American Community Survey shows that about one million U.S. households in mostly rural communities don’t own or have access to their own vehicle. About two and a half million people cannot drive themselves to work or other outings. They need public transit, but not the default type of fixed-route transit.

Building and sustaining public transit starts with recognizing the need, having the will to solve the problem, and funding it. In short, with innovations in the industry, funding is not the obstacle that one might think. Most people think of public transport as fixed-route buses. In Indiana, with its more rural mindset, even Indianapolis city leaders are constantly battling for funding and infrastructure. They know they need to create an affordable system for people who need access to better paying jobs in commercial parks built on the outskirts of the city. Here in Montgomery County, we need public transit for many of the same reasons, but the solutions will be different.

While Sunshine Vans transports the over-60s and people with disabilities to medical appointments, social and nutrition programs and groceries, and we have the new VA van with three volunteers to transport vets to appointments in other cities, both serving narrow populations. The Sunshine Van program operates on grants and donations with the website encouraging family members to donate punch cards to low-income seniors and disabled people. Passengers should call and schedule transportation twenty-four to forty-eight hours in advance, depending on type of appointment and wheelchair requirements. The Crawfordsville Parks Department, which operates the Sunshine Vans, offers wheelchair access and limited out-of-town rides that cost between four and fifteen dollars. Additionally, hours are limited Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., and trips over twenty-five miles require more arrangements. Veterans who need transportation should call Joe Ellis at the VA County Office at 765-361-4133.

Our public transport is cobbled together, a variety of services with loose connections and dubious importance in the market. It’s tough for young low-income citizens or people who need a ride to Indianapolis, Lafayette, or other cities. Someone could take a ride from these towns but not to them, as noted by Pam Field of Crawfordsville Shuttle Service. Rides can cost four or five dollars one way within the city, or around ten to fifteen dollars round trip with the Crawfordsville shuttle service. It offers fares ranging from fifty dollars to Purdue, sixty dollars in other areas of Lafayette and ninety-five dollars at the Indianapolis airport.

What happens when a person needs to be taken to the courthouse, the new county building, or from the jail to the probation offices? Our city and county leaders have noticed that some people end up relying on friends or family, sometimes to their own detriment. Calling 211 will connect you for some transportation and emergency response.

Why is this not enough? Sometimes we had taxi service and an Uber search shows local drivers, but these are at the discretion of the drivers. The more formal services mentioned earlier are limited to certain populations, pre-scheduled and set times. In addition, everyone must have the resources to know the options that will suit their situation. What happens when visitors arrive for Ironman? What about a family whose car breaks down and they can’t make it to an appointment?

What might planners consider to fill the gaps and inconsistencies? Some companies offer apps (like VIA) to consolidate local options into one place, creating a system called microtransit. On-demand rides allow users to select transportation options that meet their real-time needs and reach more county residents. Apps like this will also provide data to improve options for more rural or low-income citizens.

Whether a mom in transitional housing needs a ride to Heritage, or an aging woman wanting to maintain her independence, or a dad in Darlington with a broken down truck, or teenagers wanting to get to MXI (the Malcolm X Institute in Wabash) for an event, Montgomery County needs an intentional microtransit system. What is doable is funding a dynamic, responsive and fairer system.

The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan, multidisciplinary organization, encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of key political issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are welcome to join the LWV where practical work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For more information, visit the website or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.