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Solving public transportation needs in rural America

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Rural parts of the U.S. aren't exactly known for robust public transportation systems. But as more residents get older, the need is increasing. Harvest Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert reports.

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: A white van braves country roads with flying gravel in northeast Nebraska to get to a house surrounded by fields with wind chimes on the outside. The driver sets down a ramp for Joel Tyndall...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, Joel.

REMBERT: ...Who guides his electric wheelchair up and into the van. Tyndall manages his diabetes with three dialysis appointments a week. He needs a little help making the two-hour round trip to the clinic in Norfolk, so he calls Cedar County Transit.

JOEL TYNDALL: These guys help me out more than you would believe. I mean, I am double amputee above the knee, so...

REMBERT: But he's still able to get to his medical appointments, run errands and even see friends and family, all from the rural home he's known for years.

TYNDALL: They asked me, why don't I move down to Norfolk? And I said, I'm going to leave my home and all this? I said, no, I've got this. As long as this transit continues to run, I'll be using that for just about everything, you know?

REMBERT: Now it's time to get buckled in and head to dialysis.

TYNDALL: I don't mind rolling around.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right. We got your seatbelt. We got your blue straps. Have a good trip. Karen'll take you there.

REMBERT: Since 1980, Cedar County has had some level of public transit. It sort of works like a rural Uber. Anyone can call to schedule a ride, as long as it's within 200 miles and on a weekday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Riders pay anywhere from $3 for a nearby destination to $75 for a 400-mile trip. Federal funding provides the bulk of transit budgets, with local and state dollars making up the rest. Services like these make the difference for folks like Tyndall. A third of state rural health offices said transportation was the No. 1 barrier to people staying in their homes. That's despite it being a relatively common resource across the country. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports 82% of counties nationwide had some level of rural transit available in 2019. Carrie Henning-Smith researches rural health at the University of Minnesota and says providing transit is a hard gig.

CARRIE HENNING-SMITH: There's greater need for transportation among older adults in rural communities but more transportation challenges in getting people where they need to go.

REMBERT: And she's quick to point out 82% of counties having transit means there's still 18% that don't. Cherry County in western Nebraska was one of those counties. For years, it hasn't had any public transit available. Peg Snell manages the independent living center in Valentine, the county's biggest town. Something snapped in her when she saw elderly residents walking in the heat to get to the hospital.

PEG SNELL: And I'm like, this is wrong. You know, this is wrong.

REMBERT: Snell knew something had to change, so she pushed city officials to ask a Western Nebraska agency to expand their services into town. Not long after, big white buses started appearing on Valentine streets. It's made all the difference for Jim Ducey. He uses a bike to get around, and this snowy winter has been tough. If not for the bus, he's not sure he could have stayed in his home.

JIM DUCEY: I did not want to leave Valentine. I'm still here, and that is because the transit service arrived at the perfect time.

REMBERT: Right now, the buses only run within city limits, just a small part of Cherry County, but they hope it's only the beginning. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Rembert