Small buses operated by local transit companies provide crucial transportation services for their communities, but it can be a challenge to keep both passengers and the driver safe in the pandemic. (Source: Standing Rock Public Transit)

When the pandemic struck the border of North and South Dakota, the ridership of Standing Rock Public Transit dropped by half. But that didn’t reduce the rural transit system’s one million acre service area or the 50-to-60 mile one-way trips some riders needed just to get to the grocery store. 

“Before Covid, we were having to turn people away,” said Standing Rock Public Transit Director Pam Ternes. “Now, we’re running buses 50 miles with maybe three passengers.”

Screens protecting the driver on one of the Standing Rock Public Transit buses. Drivers are often among the highest risk individuals themselves. (Source: Standing Rock Public Transit)

Around the country, some riders have no alternative to using rural public transit. Others need the service more than ever to get to medical treatment or to a vaccination appointment. That leaves transit agencies struggling to protect riders and drivers, both of whom may be at high risk of complications from Covid-19.  

In communities where the nearest hospital or supermarket may be an hour’s drive away, rural public transportation meets residents’ most basic needs. But at the start of the pandemic, ridership of public buses and vans—commonly ridden to crucial destinations like work, dialysis appointments, and the grocery store—declined by 90% in some rural areas. 

The problems with restoring that ridership are plentiful: rural transit vehicles are small and social-distancing is difficult, drivers and riders are often high-risk for Covid-19, and vaccine availability varies widely from state to state. 

According to a January survey of more than 100 rural and small-urban transit agencies by the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA), rural transit operations reported a 52.2% decrease in ridership since this time last year. 

Often the people still using rural transit are ai an extremely high-risk category. River Cities Public Transit in Spearfish, South Dakota, has been responsible for transporting elderly people to vaccination sites and Covid-positive people to hospitals. 

Recently, a local healthcare center reached out to River Cities to ask what they should do if someone with a vaccine appointment had no way to get there. “I said ‘we’ll give them a ride,’” said Executive Director Ron Baumgart. “Obviously it’s very important for us to keep this vaccination process going and whatever little bit we can do, we’re gonna be there to do it.”

River Cities transports those who need it most, said Baumgart. “We’ve got two or three drivers who have volunteered to take extra precautions and do these rides and I certainly commend them for that. So far we’ve kept them all healthy.”

However, in many cases, drivers themselves are elderly and at high risk of developing a severe case of Covid-19. At the Champaign County Area Rural Transit System (C-CARTS)  in central Illinois, most drivers are part-time retirees, says Special Services Manager Evan Alvarez. “That’s not true everywhere, but it’s true here,” he said. “So a lot of our workforce were especially vulnerable to Covid.”

One of the routes offered by C-CARTS. The company’s buses provide a crucial service, shuttling workers to factories located in Rantoul, Illinois. (Source: C-CARTS)

River Cities faces the same situation. “In our more rural towns,” says Baumgart, “if it weren’t for the retirement-age people who say ‘hey, I’ll work a day or two a week for you,’ we’d really be hurting out there.”

At C-CARTS, the pandemic exacerbated a long-term staffing shortage. “It was almost cruel,” said Alvarez. “I had been aggressively hiring new people for a while and last spring we finally hit the staff level we’d been budgeting for. It was really going to open up our service to do a lot of cool stuff, and then Covid happened and half of my people had to leave.”

Maintaining staff is crucial even when ridership is low—a typical 16-passenger rural transit bus can safely fit only four people with proper social-distancing. Often it takes two buses to transport eight people when, prior to Covid-19, one bus could fit 16. 

C-CARTS was able to remain staffed throughout 2020 due in large part to the fact that it shares staff and facilities with the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD). “We were borrowing bus drivers from our urban agency and they were just driving a second van along the route for more space,” Alvarez said. 

Pulling drivers from MTD was not a long-term solution, said Alvarez, because of the additional expense of having two drivers. “But it is an instance where we were very fortunate to exist under MTD and to have that support.”

The key to getting back to normal, said Prairie Hills Transit Executive Director and CTAA President Barbara Cline, is not a mystery. Rural transit needs vaccines, and drivers need to be prioritized as frontline workers, she said. 

In South Dakota, where Prairie Hills is located, that’s not happening. “They’re at the bottom of the first phase,” says Cline, “classified with transportation and logistics. They’re being lumped in with truck drivers and delivery drivers.”

While drivers should not be prioritized as healthcare workers, said Cline, in terms of Covid risk they are more similar to them than to truck drivers. 

“It absolutely makes no sense to me,” she said. “They have been on the front lines doing what needs to be done. They are essential workers.”

Baumgart concurred. “We are not as high up the list as I’d like to see,” he said. “We’re a ways off yet—I don’t think we’re gonna see anything probably until April.”

Hand sanitizer on board of one of the Standing Rock Public Transit buses. (Source: Standing Rock Public Transit)

Driving for public transit is an undoubtedly high-exposure job. “We are transporting—in separate vehicles, with certain drivers—Covid positive people, taking them in for treatment and picking them up from the hospital,” says Baumgart. 

Drivers of “cutaway” vans often have to help passengers in wheelchairs maneuver onto lifts, said deputy executive director of the California Association for Coordinated Transportation (CALACT). “It’s always hard to find qualified drivers and the $600 week unemployment checks didn’t help,” he said, because potential drivers could remain safely at home with less financial hardship. “The risk outweighed the benefit.”

Vaccine prioritization varies widely from state to state. In North Dakota, Director of Standing Rock Public Transit Pam Ternes said drivers are being adequately prioritized for vaccinations. 

“Transit is already committed to getting people to vaccines, tests, and transporting Covid-positive people,” said CALACT Executive Director Jacklyn Montgomery, “which is why we think they really should be prioritized for vaccines.”

Aside from getting drivers vaccinated, rural transit operations can be integral to achieving widespread community inoculation.

There is no job more important to transit agencies right now than helping rural and at-risk populations get access to the Covid-19 vaccine, said CTAA’s Executive Director Scott Bogren.

CARES act funds, which—unlike traditional public transportation dollars—do not need to be matched by local agencies, can be used to support essential non-transit services so long as that use does not interfere with regular transit programs.

“The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is encouraging transit grantees to partner at the local level to provide essential services to their communities,” said Amy Conrick, program manager at the National Center for Mobility Management (NCMM) in a webinar entitled “Mobilizing transportation to increase Covid-19 vaccination.”

In areas where public transit has unused capacity due to low ridership, agencies can shift staff to assist with local projects from meal delivery to vaccine distribution, with the federal government assuming the cost.

“The FTA’s policy on incidental use allows for all FTA-funded vehicles, assets, and real estate—regardless of the funding source—to be used to support essential services when that use does not interfere with transit service,” Conrick said.

In Texas, the decentralized nature of vaccine rollout means public transit is an especially important tool, said webinar panelist Eric Gleason, Director of Public Transportation at Texas DOT. 

TDOT is working to connect public transit services with the Department of State Health Services’ vaccine rollout efforts. 

“We know that over half of the trips every year that occur on our rural transit systems are medically related,” Gleason said. “We know that the current transit providers are going to know these people who need to get to these vaccination sites. And beyond that we have CARES Act money to fund the transportation of those folks.”

The onus is on rural transit providers to make those connections, said Gleason. “I think the message is, it’s got to happen locally.”