Smaller Communities Explore Health, Public-Transportation Connections

Esther Dyson

[quote_right][feature_box title=”TDM TAKEAWAY” title_color=”fff” header_color=”369″]Bringing public transportation to smaller communities would greatly improve health. We just have to make it happen.[/feature_box][/quote_right]

Five cities, five years to make a difference in their community’s health.

That’s the challenge presented by the non-profit Health Initiative Coordinating Council (HICCup) and its Way to Wellville program. Founded in 2013 by prolific angel investor Esther Dyson, HICCup looks at common barriers to good health, such as poverty and education, but also questions such as how transportation networks – particularly a lack of public-transportation options – affect the well-being of residents.

What to Do About a Lack of Transportation Options?

“Lack of transportation for people, especially in rural and semi-rural areas, is a huge contributor to poor health,” Dyson said. “For some of them, they don’t have transportation to the doctor. You can’t sell fresh produce if the trucking company isn’t interested in coming to your community because it’s too far away.”

Dyson is particularly sensitive to the needs of individuals without cars. Although she trained with Russian cosmonauts in Moscow, she said she has never learned how to drive.

“I’m very conscious of the logistics of not having a car,” she said. “And related to that, I love public transportation.”

tcamp-logoA Lab for Public-Transportation Experience in Smaller Communities

The five Way to Wellville communities – Spartanburg, South Carolina; Niagara Falls, New York; Clatsop County, Oregon; Lake County, California; and Greater Muskegon, Michigan – could serve as laboratories for new transportation programs and face head-on the various transit challenges of smaller communities.

Throughout the five years of the program, which kicked off just this past August, community leaders will collect enormous amounts of data on what works and what doesn’t. They will also try a variety of funding and organizational models to create a transit network that serves the goal of improving community health.

Perhaps the largest issue these areas face is simply scale. The five participating communities each have populations of less than 100,000. That makes it difficult for city managers to make a heavy investment in bus lines or light rail and somehow be able to break even, Dyson explained. In some cities, reduced rates are offered via monthly passes or commuter rates while casual riders and tourists pay a slightly higher rate to supplement the locals.

“In a small community without much of budget, you need a good business case,” Dyson said. “Having the bus service for one year, which then gets cancelled, is not going to be helpful.”

Creative Possibilities

Bikeshare, which is growing exponentially in popularity across the United States, is unfortunately one mode of transportation that also has an uphill battle in small communities.

“The issue is density and, also, in [Washington] D.C. they plow the street in the winter,” Dyson said. “If you go to a more spread out place like Muskegon, it’s much harder.”

Dockless bikesharing systems such as Social Bicycles (SoBi), of which Dyson is an investor, are designed to be more amenable to the smaller budgets and smaller user pool than traditional bikeshare systems require. However, while SoBi and others could be a part of the solution, she said it’s just not going to be able to move the needle as much as in a larger community.

Other big questions for these communities include:

  • Whether or not local businesses would be willing to subsidize a public-transportation system.
  • Are van ridesharing systems the most sensible option for rural communities?
  • Could something like Lyft be a viable alternative to sometimes unreliable taxi services?

Figuring out the funding puzzle is the number-one thing that Dyson wants to explore with fellow participants at TransportationCamp DC on January 10. This will be her second time at the annual unconference.

For more information on TransportationCamp DC and to register to attend, please visit http://transportationcamp.org/.

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Carmalee Scarpitti

“Perhaps the largest issue these areas face is simply scale. The five participating communities each have populations of less than 100,000. That makes it difficult for city managers to make a heavy investment in bus lines or light rail and somehow be able to break even.”

I don’t know of one transit system in the USA that breaks even. According the the National Transit Database the average fare box recovery for small urban systems in 2012, the most recent data available, was 19.3%. http://www.ntdprogram.gov/ntdprogram/pubs/NTST/NTST.pdf If the actual cost per trip were charged it is then likely that the people this project aims to help would not be able to afford to use it.

I’ll be interested to follow along with this and see if these areas come up with creative funding sources to enhance transit in their area.

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