NC DOT needs to encourage rural transit, not stifle it

Bus route in Henderson County is on the chopping block:

The route serves 150 to 180 people per month with a 12-seat transit van with three trips each morning and three each afternoon. It takes riders from the east side of Hendersonville on a loop that travels Sugarloaf Road, Ridge Road and Pilot Mountain Road to the Edneyville Post Office before heading back into Hendersonville via Chimney Rock Road.

But WCCA can no longer get grant funding for the route under the state’s new interpretation of what constitutes a consolidated system, Crisp told Times-News staff writer Andrew Mundhenk. Henderson County’s website states that the service is being discontinued “due to state budget cuts,” and directs people to call 828-698-8571 for more information.

As readers are likely aware, I'm a big proponent of public transportation. And not just the high-density metro systems, but also smaller systems that connect rural and suburban areas to commercial hubs and county seats. Money is always an issue, but there are two sides to that money debate. Especially in our current economy, physical mobility is critical in the pursuit of financial independence. But people's health is at stake, too:

Older people rate access to public transportation as a top priority, according to National American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) data presented to the General Assembly’s subcommittee on aging last December. Access to transportation is an important determinant of senior health, as many older people have conditions that involve medical appointments, NC Health News reported.

You may wonder why I posted such an old picture above. That is Statesville in the late 1950's, and during much of the middle 20th Century, bus routes ran on nearly all state roads, both urban and rural. Car ownership during that period was still limited to 35%-50% of the population, so public transportation was ubiquitous. A lot more people have cars now, but here's the thing: There still exists a percentage of our population that fall into the category that over half of us did back then. It may only be 8%-12%, but for them, being without a car in our society is akin to a jail sentence or house arrest.

Here are a few bullet points on rural transit to keep in mind:

Rural demographics make public transit increasingly desired. Older Americans make up a larger portion of rural populations (17 percent) than in urban populations (13 percent).

Rural residents with disabilities rely on public transit-they take about 50 percent more public transit trips than unimpaired people do.

There are 2.9 million rural veterans, making up 33 percent of the veteran population enrolled in the VA health care system. Rural public transit can help them access needed services.

Public transit can reduce the risk of road accidents. Rural residents travel about 33 percent more than urban residents, and although rural areas only make up 19 percent of the population, they account for around 49 percent of traffic fatalities.

Rural poverty rates exceed urban poverty rates in all regions. Rural public transit can help reduce personal travel expenditures due to gas and other vehicle maintenance expenditures (rural households spend about 7 percentage points more of their budgets on transportation than urban households do).

Public transit can help promote active lifestyles in rural communities struggling with health problems such as obesity, and can link people with healthcare services.

Rural public transportation can be an important force in supporting local economies by connecting residents (especially non-drivers) with local businesses and job opportunities.