It’s easy for people in suburban and rural areas to assume that getting around would not be possible without a car. It’s true that many people currently use their cars for everything, largely because they have little exposure to or confidence in anything else.
Here are two things they might not know:
- Options other than driving your personal vehicle – such as formal public transportation services and informal, sometimes spontaneous arrangements such as carpooling – exist everywhere.
- These “alternative” modes are essential to suburban and rural areas’ transportation systems.
Here’s an overview of non-drive alone modes that already exist – and are making a huge difference – in suburban and rural areas.
Lots of buses and trains serve low-density areas. The average person appreciates…some of them.
There are plenty of scenarios in which people who usually drive are happy to hop on a high-capacity transit (or transit-like) vehicle. Regular old bus and rail routes can serve as attractive options for trips to popular, congested locations, while a variety of situations call for specialized buses of some sort.
“Some people who don’t ride on the usual actually will use for events and concerts,” explained Colin Parent, executive director of Circulate San Diego and a city councilmember in suburban La Mesa, Calif. He cited the busy U.S.-Mexico border crossing and annual Comic-Con convention as popular transit destinations.
Special events aren’t the only time drivers hop on high-capacity vehicles without hesitation. Commuter rail is obvious – but we usually forget about airports’ parking and rental-car terminals. These arrive at incredible frequencies that many transit bus riders can only dream of. Old-fashioned, yellow school buses are another example.
There’s one type of low-density bus service that non-regular riders aren’t as comfortable with – the local routes that serve their own neighborhoods. These routes get people, including the workers who ring up their groceries and the mechanics who keep their cars running, where they need to go. Yet many residents assume that someone would never ride their community’s buses by choice.
Sadly, this stereotype leads to a lack of support for suburban and rural local bus systems, leading to limited service that often is not integrated well with the commuter-oriented transit routes more affluent residents utilize.
When the transportation system doesn’t offer sufficient options, people find ways to fill the gaps
Suburban and rural drivers also carry passengers in their own cars. After all, when people are heading in the same direction, riding together maximizes efficiency and reduces congestion.
While app-based ride-hailing services are available in low-density areas, options people have created for themselves – including fixed-route carpooling (also known as slugging), organized vanpools for company employees, and casual ride arrangements between friends and colleagues – have enjoyed more success.
In low-density areas, venture capital hasn’t yet disrupted much of anything
Transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft have emerged in suburbs over the last several years, offering the same shared- and solo-ride options they do in cities. (In rural areas, they are often unavailable). These companies have made it easier for riders to request a car in places where calling a conventional taxi was often not a viable option. But though people may consider TNCs for occasional outings, they haven’t yet managed to thoroughly disrupt suburban driving habits to the extent they have affected urban taxicab companies and transit systems.
Some low-density communities have elected to allocate taxpayer funds normally reserved for conventional transit to instead subsidize TNC service. In some cases, local leaders have chosen to cut transit routes to make way for the new options. So far, these programs have mostly struggled. For example, Uber’s publicly funded service in Innisfil, Ontario (a Toronto exurb of 36,000) carries just 200 daily riders. A similar pilot program in Dublin (a San Francisco suburb of nearly 50,000) was forecast to carry only 50 daily riders.
When people cooperate to solve problems, real innovation can happen
Residents living in exurban areas lacking sufficient transit service have worked together to create alternatives to solo driving long before venture capital entered the scene, and have arguably had more success doing so than any TNCs have.
These systems, also known as “slug lines,” have route patterns that resemble the commuter rail and bus systems that suburban residents love. Here’s how it works: drivers on their way to work stop their vehicles at designated locations to pick up passengers. The drivers are compensated for their work primarily with travel time savings due to the HOV lane access they get (D.C.’s sluggers do not need to pay fares, while Bay Area passengers typically pay only $1). The carpool routes terminate at central locations with ample transit connections, such as the Pentagon, from which riders can walk to their jobs on foot or take a short bus or rail ride to their office.
Some companies organize vanpools for their employees, helping coordinate reliable shared commutes for workers in areas that may lack sophisticated slugging options. Vans hold up to 15 passengers and employees can use transit benefits to pay for them. These services enjoy nationwide popularity. For example, Enterprise Rideshare, one of the country’s largest vanpool providers (having operated as vRide for nearly 40 years before the large car-rental company acquired it), oversees 12,300 different vanpools spanning 45 states.
Informal carpooling also plays a big role in low-density areas. Colleagues and friends often arrange to commute together – arrangements that can save money, but might limit flexibility because unlike transit routes or slug lines with frequent service, they force people to adhere to others’ schedules and travel patterns.
Active transportation: a chance to get some fresh air
Historically, active transportation outside suburbs has been highly decentralized. People own personal bikes, and with limited access to and integration of cycling infrastructure they individually seek out safe, enjoyable places to ride.
The experience is similar for pedestrians – some streets have wide sidewalks, some have none at all, and it’s up to each person to blaze their own trail. This can mean watching traffic and choosing for oneself when and where to safely cross an arterial street, rather than depend on sparsely marked crosswalks that inattentive drivers frequently ignore.
In recent years, active transportation initiatives in low-density areas have become more organized. For example, coordination efforts such as the Safe Routes to School National Partnership help integrate transportation infrastructure designed to move bicyclists and pedestrians.
Bike sharing programs also have played an integral role. Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare system has expanded to cover much of suburban Montgomery County, Md., providing first and last mile support for Metro lines as well as local connectivity. The county subsidizes low-income riders’ bikeshare memberships, broadening the system’s reach.
With such initiatives in place, it’s not surprising that Capital Bikeshare’s ridership is on the rise.
LimeBike, a dockless bikeshare company, has provided similar benefits to low-density San Diego County. According to Colin McMahon, a New Market Launcher for the company, 40 percent of riders start or end their trips within 50 meters of a transit stop. Parent added that riders often travel a substantial distance via the bicycles to access buses and light rail.
Up next: even for the open-minded, obstacles to multimodal transportation can prove too much
We’ve demonstrated that in low-density areas, not only do people have access to more than one transportation mode, but they are open to trying any option that fits their needs. However, numerous artificial obstacles – both mental and physical – prevent free decision-making. Next week, we will describe and analyze these obstacles.
Photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab.