Pursuing Tech to Empower Rural Transit

  • Author: Andrew Carpenter
  • Date: October 24, 2017

RTD Dispatch

Note: Since so many organizations throw around the word “technology,” it helps to clarify what we refer to at NCMM. While it includes the buzzy new stuff like autonomous vehicles and transportation network companies (Uber and Lyft), it’s more than apps, algorithms and disruptors. When we talk about technology, we mean anything electronic or digital across the wide set of an agency’s functions that can help staff make the most of their fleets, operators, and funding without cutting service.

Of the dozens of challenges that public transit agencies face, funding tends to be the most pressing and overarching issue. Implementing new technologies, from software upgrades to electric buses, can give agencies new avenues to loosen current budgets while unlocking new resources to potentially expand their services.

We recently covered the opportunities and challenges that the rapid pace of technological change presents to communities of any size, but this can have an exceptional impact on smaller transit systems in dispersed communities that face the need to provide more mobility to increasingly far-flung, dependent residents with fewer resources to do so.

For rural providers who are trying to navigate the process of procuring and implementing technological concepts, the National Transit Institute (NTI) provides useful courses that can guide planners toward the right solution for their communities.

At a recent session of NTI’s Implementing Rural Transit Technology in Richmond, Virginia, participants from a diverse set of rural transit providers discussed the challenges that they face in serving their customers, and how finding the right way to implement new technologies may be part of their solution.

The group reinforced the idea that funding limits their ability to maximize service. Since it is difficult to find the resources to provide for customers with what they have, let alone dedicate time or money to introducing a new system or process to their service, many transit agencies are unable to make these changes despite their interest in doing so.

Bringing the group together helped participants discover and better understand what is available to them, and provided ideas on how to creatively pursue potential solutions within existing constraints.


Making the Case

When it comes to allocating staff and money to something new, most managers face resistance. Many organizations and funders are more comfortable sticking to how things have been done for years instead of taking risks and having to adapt to new systems.

Yet, over the long run, implementing certain technologies can save agencies significant money that can then go towards improving their service. Frederick TransIT, in Maryland, provides an ideal example in this case. Their investment in electric buses, as just one example, saves thousands of dollars per month on fuel and maintenance costs.

Even less flashy, and at times behind-the scenes tools, such as automated passenger counters, can make a difference by establishing a dataset that gives agencies real-time insights into how people use their system and where they could improve service. In addition, routing software such as Remix or Routematch improve efficiency, even in widely-dispersed areas. Other types of agencies that operate vehicle fleets are beginning to embrace this concept, and many are showing how investments like this can benefit their systems across the board.

From another perspective, failing to adapt to the rapid shifts in modern society is part of what is leaving some transit systems behind. This study from Bellwether Education examines the shortcomings of the country’s school bus system, and some of the conclusions are directly applicable to rural transit as well. In particular, the notion of “data deficits,” or a lack of information, can prevent systems from optimizing their fleets, understanding their populations, reducing costs and from improving service.

It serves transit managers to look for new ideas and, when they make sense for their systems, know how to make the business case to the right people that will unlock the resources necessary to improve residents’ mobility.


Get Creative

Unfortunately, reaching one’s goals is hardly a straightforward process, and every community has unique needs. As a result, most communities need to get very creative with how they fund and generate support for their projects, the challenges of which Carson City, Nevada’s, transportation planner articulates well for Mobility Lab.

That said, there are small communities that have been able to establish highly innovative solutions that make a big difference where they’re most needed. For example, Cantua Creek in California, a hamlet with under 500 people that is dozens of miles from the closets grocery store, developed a pilot weekday ride-hailing system with a Tesla SUV that residents can rent, Zipcar-style, on weekends.

When designed correctly, partnerships with private companies or nonprofits can also play a significant role in filling provider gaps while minimizing the cost of implementation. And while transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft have largely avoided rural areas, Liberty Mobility Now has opened to specifically focus on these areas. The company engages with local partners to make their services more accessible, while recruiting members from the community to as drivers to supplement what already exists.

Though public transit faces many challenges, the examples above illustrate that there are a growing number of avenues to pursue for managers to serve their communities in new and exciting ways. Bringing planners, managers, and advocates together in settings like an NTI course can establish the right connections to do so, through the material and by exchanging firsthand knowledge. In Richmond, participants discovered new technologies and ideas for how to pursue them while meeting potential partners in getting the process started.


For rural mobility managers interested in connecting and learning about the possibilities of implementing technology in their communities, feel free to reach out to carpenter@ctaa.org for connections to similar organizations, or explore NTI’s courses to find an opportunity nearby.

Image Credit San Joaquin RTD, Flickr, CC


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Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Sage Kashner (kashner@ctaa.org).

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