Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | An innovative partnership gives residents of northwest Washington state a single fare-payment option they can use on public transit to cross county lines for work, medical appointments or leisure.
Most major American cities tend to be serviced by large public transportation agencies that provide mobility for all of their residents. Large-scale transit is achievable in urban metro areas because of mixed-use residential and commercial development, dense urban planning and city infrastructure that favors car-alternative transportation methods.
In contrast, outer-urban areas are automobile-oriented. Low-density housing and streets laid out in curving patterns make it difficult to connect rural roads to larger interstates and service roads. The unique design of these areas impacts access to public transportation for residents living outside the city.
Landmass in the U.S. is mostly rural—97% of it in fact—and about 20% of the total population lives there. For those in rural areas, an unforeseen mechanical issue with a car can be a massive obstacle to completing necessary daily tasks like getting to and from work or to the grocery store. Daily tasks aren’t the only things that can get disrupted for people living outside of cities who lack transportation options. About 9% of public transit riders in rural and small urban areas use public transit to get to the medical services they need.
The challenge rural leadership faces is coordinating across counties and city lines to guarantee public transit services reach those who need them. Any given resident may reside in one town, commute into the city for work and travel in the opposite direction for leisure. Rural residents require transit options as diverse and expansive as their daily habits are. A comprehensive transit network grants every resident the opportunity to travel freely and connects them to the destinations important to facilitate their lives.
Connecting rural Washington state residents to urban epicenters like Seattle
People across the Pacific Northwest and rural areas of the U.S. have long dealt with these transportation burdens. One example of this is rural Skagit County in northern Washington where residents have historically been unable to access the urban areas and services they need in nearby, more densely populated areas such as Mount Vernon, Seattle and Everett due to a lack of sufficient public transportation options.
However, thanks to a recent innovative partnership between the public transit agencies in Skagit and Whatcom counties, residents of northwest Washington can now cross county lines using a single fare-payment option. With the implementation of a mobility platform that enables riders to conveniently pay fares and plan trips across public and private modes, these two separate transportation authority organizations were able to create a unified experience across their respective agencies that simplifies transportation use for riders across agency service area lines.
As a result, the transportation services in the area are better structured to equitably serve communities with diverse needs. So, how can this type of partnership be implemented in other areas of the country where transportation inequality is rampant and not all residents have access to reliable, safe public transportation?
The solution centers on three key focus areas for transit agencies:
1. Seamless collaboration for riders and agencies, which still allows transit agencies to operate as separate authorities.
2. Identification of areas with the highest need for rural-urban collaborations to fix existing transit inequities and identification of public funds available.
3. Selecting an expert integration partner with a future-forward mindset that has knowledge of both legacy systems and new digital technologies.
The bottom line is that urban-rural transit agency collaborations can improve access for millions. Although transportation equity and accessibility is not a problem we’re going to solve overnight, it’s one of grave importance for people living in rural areas.
Brad Windler is planning and outreach supervisor at Skagit Transit.