One of the biggest differences between rural and urban Agencies is their data.
The large amount of data accumulated in urban transportation makes it easier to tease out actionable insights and gaps to be funded.
Data makes it significantly easier to communicate problems, win grants, sustain funding, improve transportation for the area, and then get even more data—and more ridership. This initiates a cycle of improvement that makes it easier to sustain funding relative to rural areas.
In contrast, rural areas don’t have this level of ridership. Without the data that comes with ridership, it might not seem like there is any reason to reconsider your current transit system. With scooters, e-bikes, and other technology flooding urban areas, it might feel like rural areas have no hope in updating their own services.
There is hope though, and it starts with either looking at the data they already have, or finding a third party to look at it.
The Cycle of Transportation Improvement
Urban areas benefit heavily from a cycle of improvement that is accelerated as they get more data and more ridership. Loosely speaking, more quality data makes it easier to see where improvements need to be made and to justify transportation upgrades. Once upgrades are made, ridership increases, more data is created and the process restarts.
In urban areas, if governments are not seen to be consistently evolving their public transit, there are micromobility options like scooters and bikes which themselves generate transit demand data.
With rural communities, it’s the opposite.
There’s less ridership, less data, less local resources for innovation in transit, less change in transportation, and less revenue. This either leads to unnecessary spending in order to maintain a budget, or less spending—and thereby less funding.
Rural Communities Might Be Stranded And It’s Not Their Fault
Without looking at the data they currently have, many rural Agencies are stuck in a different cycle that makes it harder to compete—no change, less ridership, less data, less focus on transportation problems, even less change, and even less ridership as a result.
Transportation and mobility decisions are—or at least ought to be—data-driven based on the effectiveness of current modes of transportation. Even if they do look at their data, rural Agencies may not know what to look for. If they do know what to look for, they might not know what to do next, or how to act on it. This is where the problem begins.
The Problem: Data, Demand, and Incentives
The problem can be categorised into two situations. The first is where Agencies don't even know where to begin dealing with their data, and might feel dissuaded from looking at it. The second is when they have quality data, and some understanding of what it means, but don’t know what changes to make.
If You Don’t Even Know Where to Begin
Then there’s the case where an Agency doesn't know where to begin, or—due to poor quality of data or lack of resources—data doesn’t make it obvious that there’s a need for change.
We recommend performing a transit health check. It’s a quick assessment of available data and a preliminary set of recommendations for your existing transit network. You can speak to mobility strategist today to understand more.
If the data at hand doesn’t look like anything is wrong, don’t be fooled.
This by no means implies that people in these rural areas don’t need better access to transportation. It’s important to understand that if people aren’t using the current system, it does not necessarily mean there is no demand, but rather that the current service is not fulfilling their demand.
If You Have Quality Data and Don’t Know What to Do
If an Agency has data, but doesn’t know what to do with it, there are a few options Agencies have:
- Use whatever resources are available to analyse and extract insight from it
- Utilise communities such as Kaggle, or CodaLab, where it can be analysed it for free the public, or as a part of a competition
- Have a third party analyse your data and retain control over findings
Research Shows Demand for Change
It’s not solely that the market of riders is being pushed away from using public transit by some external microeconomic incentive, like the convenience of cars.
Not using a mode of transportation is the market’s response to the service. This is a clear indicator that the service provider must change and not the customer.
In general, we shouldn’t expect people to go against their intuition or use a system that doesn’t serve their needs. In fact, the demand for public transit in rural areas is not only clear, but oftentimes urgent.
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018, nearly a quarter (23%) of Americans in rural areas said access to good doctors and hospitals is a major problem in their community, compared with 18% of urbanites and 9% of suburbanites.
The same survey said that “among the quarter of rural Americans whose travel time is the longest, it takes an average of 34 minutes to get to the nearest acute care facility, compared with just six minutes for the quarter of rural Americans whose travel time is the shortest.”.
While it might seem obvious that every second counts in medical emergencies, transportation plays a dramatic role in the everyday lives of both rural and urban communities. One-in-ten Americans (11%) say they take public transportation on a daily or weekly basis, according to another Pew Research Center survey conducted in late 2015.
In other words, there aren’t any obvious justifications for a slow change in transportation services, but especially so in rural areas. Rural populations need better transportation just as much as anyone else. Even if there isn’t as much data to show it, that small amount of data still shows a demand.
Moreover, awareness of, and access to public transportation can easily be argued as an incentive that causes more demand (or ridership). By 'access' we simply mean increasing the number of transit options available, but recognise there is much more to it than this usage encompasses.
In fact a 2017 APTA survey found that although America’s rural population is declining, rural public transit ridership has increased between 2007 to 2015, equating to an 8.6% increase in per-capita rural ridership over the past 8 years, and a 7.8% increase in total rural ridership. Meanwhile urban public transit ridership increased by 2.3%in the same time period. Additionally, the number of rural and small town public Transit Agencies has increased over the past two decades to approximately 1,400 Agencies (2014).
In essence, rural Transit Agencies have every reason to reconsider their current system and continue the cycle of improvement.
It’s Not Your Fault
While it’s easy to point fingers at a politician, Agency, or new company, based on what we do know about the state of transportation and data, the problem seems a bit more systemic.
Standards for collecting data on the other modes of transit in rural and urban areas are still being consolidated within the transit community and many providers don’t have any incentive to actively converge on what they might want to call “best practices”. In general, most government Agencies are notorious for their data standards. It’s understandable to not want to add to this mess if you don’t have the funding or resources to handle your data.
How do Transit Agencies Evaluate Data?
There are two common metrics used to evaluate public transit by Agencies (in the US.).
The first is annual unlinked passenger trips. This basically means how many different trips were taken using the services provided by the Transit Agency during the year.
The second is annual vehicle revenue miles, or total miles of service provided by an Agency. All public transportation Agencies that receive federal funding are required to report these two metrics so, at the very least, we know everyone has some data.
The solution has to do with acting on it fast enough.
However, many Agencies don’t have this kind of bandwidth, and that’s where other service providers can help. Fixed-route shuttles might be good for certain communities, but it might be horrible for others.
We don’t expect an Agency to know this unless they look at their data.
How Can Transit Agencies Fix Their Data?
What’s the solution?
The first step is looking at the data you do have and figuring out how to analyse it, or finding someone who can, in order to understand how your system might compare to other services.
We understand that collecting and analysing data is hard, costly, and intensive.
Although there are no sources that directly compare the volume of rural versus urban transit data, the number of data sources online for urban transit data heavily outweigh those for rural transit data—therefore leaving rural Agencies in the dust. If you’re a Transit Agency with any kind of data, we recommend finding a company that’s able to help you analyse it and figure out the next steps—in particular, one that understands the KPI that will help your Agency continue to receive funding.
In summary, Agencies need to change something soon if they want to stay afloat.
There is an infinite amount of data in the world, but a finite budget for transportation. The advantage of ridership in urban areas allows those Agencies to act faster and secure more funding for change.
If rural Agencies want to stay alive, they either need to begin collecting data and looking at it themselves, or find someone who will collect it and/or look at it.