Transit agencies across the Northwest are struggling to maintain service. They’re adjusting to high gas prices. But so are drivers. And that means demand for public transportation is up. This is an especially tricky equation for rural bus services. They have to drive farther for fewer people. Many small town transit agencies are relatively young. Many of them are still trying to find their way on a bumpy economic road.
Beth Perry sits cross-legged on a patch of grass in downtown Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She looks hopefully down the street for the bus that will take her home, 10 miles away. It’s running late -- again. By about half an hour. But at least it’s sunny out.
“There’s been some times when it was like 5 degrees outside just standing out there forever,” she says.
The cold, the delays -- so why bother? Because the alternative for Perry is nothing. Perry started riding the bus to work a couple of years ago after her old ’89 Ford finally broke down.
“If you live in Spokane or Seattle or Portland, public transportation is just common," Perry says. "But if you live in a smaller city like this it’s -– there’s not a lot of ways to get around.”
And just as she says this …
“Woop, there it is. Gotta go.”
… Perry jumps up to catch her bus.
Citylink, the system that serves Coeur d’Alene, is reducing its routes even though more people than ever rode these buses last year. In fact, bus ridership nationwide is growing fastest in rural areas, according to a recent survey by the American Public Transportation Association. The economy has bounced back enough in some places that more people are trying to get to jobs -- but in rural areas, it takes more of your gas money to drive there.
David Kack is a researcher with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University. He says if you imagine rural transit as a mini version of urban transit -– you’d be wrong.
“They’re really not comparable because the motivation of why most people are riding in an urban area versus a rural area are very different.”
In cities you have congestion and rush hour traffic. And Kack says, if you do take your car, there are the little matters of where to put it -- and how much that’s going to cost you.
On the other hand, for many rural bus riders like Beth Perry, Kack says, they just don’t have a choice.
“So, that public transportation service is a real lifeline for them.”
Kack says rural transit is still in its infancy in the West and many public transit agencies are still trying to figure out where to put their few buses, so the most people will ride them.
“So I think you’ll see that rural systems will continue to adapt and evolve. And find out the best way to provide the services for those people that need the rides.”
Some rural bus systems in the Northwest have tailored their services to very specific groups of people.
The Ben Franklin bus service in Tri-Cities, Wash., is launching a new route to Prosser wineries. In Sandpoint, Idaho, buses equipped with ski racks make winter trips to the base of the slopes.
And in Southern Oregon, the Rogue Valley Transportation District met with the top local employers when they were designing evening and Saturday hours, says planner Paige Townsend.
“And we were simply asking what are your shifts? When do you have people coming on? When do you have people coming off?”
Townsend says, that first Saturday broke records.
“We had over 1,700 people on that first day. Hahaha, for us that’s a lot of people because we are a small system.”
Sometimes, rural transit also takes on a do-it-yourself ethic.
Jerry Johnson stands next to an idling white van in Coeur d’Alene. It’s not long after sunrise.
“We’ll leave here no later than 5:40. Because we all want to get to work.”
Johnson and a dozen other people will head to Spokane, about 40 miles away. They’ll ride in what’s known as a vanpool. Think: something between a carpool and a bus. The Spokane Transit Authority owns the van, and leases it to the group. And one of the riders, like Johnson, volunteers to drive.
“There’s funny little rules that develop over time," Johnson says. "You know, people need to shower …”
Vanpools have been shuttling residents outside of Seattle and Boise into the city for decades. And the transit system that serves Tri-Cities expects some of its highest growth over the next five years to be in vanpooling.
But a recent report commissioned by the Federal Transit Administration concluded it’s not clear yet how well these shared arrangements can work in more rural areas. Jerry Johnson thinks it’s just a matter of getting people to try it.
“Once you get them on the van and they figure out that all they have to do is sleep or read or whatever they want to do. You know, it’s an hour each way and they get kind of used to that.”
Experts say that’s the challenge in areas that haven’t traditionally had transit systems: Getting car owners to give them a shot.
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