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Thoughts on Transit

Running a Successful Transit Agency: Rural Area

by Ecolane / November 9, 2015

To finish Ecolane’s blog series on running successful transit operations, we’re now going to take a look at the obstacles and characteristics in a rural area. (The first article in the series focuses on large metropolitan areas, and the second article focuses on midsize cities). What does it take for a transit agency to be successful in an area like Wallowa County, Oregon?

Wallowa County is 3,153 square miles with a total population of less than 8,000 people. Broken down further, there is anywhere from 300 to 2,900 people per city that makes up Wallowa County, which can be typical for rural areas across the country. With such a small population, it becomes a challenge for agencies to implement successful public transit operations.


The most substantial obstacle that agencies face in a rural area is the long distances between destinations. As intercity bus and rail access has declined over the years, rural areas are becoming increasingly isolated from larger cities with denser populations. This causes a vicious cycle, as there are fewer people taking public transit because there are fewer options available, so it also becomes harder to justify creating infrastructure to cater to and improve a rural population’s mobility needs. Another major obstacle for public transit agencies in rural areas is the high cost of transportation due to the long distances that must be traveled.

This doesn’t mean that rural populations don’t need public transit, however. In fact, more than 1.6 million rural households are transit dependent and don’t have access to a car. Furthermore, transit can lead to a more robust economy that can provide a means for people to sustain themselves through increased access to jobs for locals and increased economic viability for local businesses.

Factors for Success

Keeping these obstacles in mind, a transit agency should do the following to run a successful operation in these rural areas:

  1. Create Partnerships Transit providers do not possess the jurisdictional authority to make land use and public infrastructure decisions. Because of this, it is critical for agencies to form partnerships with major stakeholders such as local city or county governments, school districts and universities, private developers, and the general public. If you can proactively engage these decision makers to help them understand the benefits and need for transit and the relationship between these requirements and land use, you have a much better chance of getting the necessary support and infrastructure in place to implement your transit plans to create more robust economies for these rural areas.

  2. Involve the Public Involving the public in a rural area is a key factor for success regarding implementing transit operations successfully. You can educate non-riders about the benefits of transit for the community as a whole to increase awareness and ridership in a workshop or public hearing setting. In small cities, personal stories often have more of an influence on transit funding and other major decisions as compared to statistics or reports. If you get the public involved, you can gain more support by making it more personal and connected to the community as a whole.

  3. Identify Opportunities Assess existing area strengths and find ways to take advantage of them. To identify these opportunities properly, consider future land uses, popular destinations, and any operational issues. Also take into consideration reallocating underused services that possess lower ridership routes to be more efficient. By asking yourself, “Where should the service go?”, “What type of service will be needed?”, and “What is the ridership potential?”, you can identify these transit opportunities for your rural area.

Successfully running a transit operation in a rural area can be difficult, and there are unique challenges to overcome that aren’t a factor for agencies operating in large or midsize cities. By creating strategic partnerships, involving the public and identifying opportunities, transit agencies can successfully operate in rural areas and improve local economies, raising the standard of living for rural communities.

Tags: Transit Operations Rural Transit

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