Guest blogger – Jana Lynott| AARP Public Policy Institute
Locals refer to Lake County, Oregon as the “rural outback.” This stunningly beautiful high desert location is known for cattle ranching, agriculture, timber production, and ample outdoor recreational opportunities. The county’s 8,100 residents are spread out across more than 8,200 square miles.
In Lake County, transportation challenges can be more than a mere inconvenience. Residents must travel more than 100 miles to reach a health care specialist. Over 25 percent of the population is over the age of 65 and many of these older residents depend on others to drive them these longer distances.
Inner Court Family Center (ICFC) and Lake County Senior Center Association (LCSCA) are the only transportation providers in the county. There are no buses or taxis, nor is there any Uber. ICFC and LCSCA are it—providing transportation to medical appointments in Bend and Portland and to life’s various local destinations. As is true for most rural transportation providers, long travel distances put a crimp on limited budgets and pose scheduling challenges.
In 2020, AARP provided funding to Full Path Transit Technology to develop low-cost scheduling software appropriately tailored to the needs and resource constraints of rural nonprofit transportation providers. ICFC and LCSCA signed up to be the first to test this new tool and help Full Path and AARP work out the kinks. RideSheet, as the new open-source software is named, has streamlined ICFC and LCSCA’s business operations, eliminating the common practice of jotting down ride requests on sticky notes and arranging rides by phone, email, and text message. Using RideSheet, program managers directly enter a ride request into the application’s cloud-based spreadsheet, pinpoint a precise pick-up location in GoogleMaps using an enhanced geocoding feature, and electronically generate manifests for their drivers.
Time and Money Saved
“Time is money,” says LCSCA Executive Director Andrea Wishart. Excess time spent scheduling rides in a personnel-intensive manner and providing solo transportation for trips that could otherwise be shared by two or more riders reduces the resources the nonprofits could otherwise use to provide their customers with more rides.
RideSheet streamlines data entry and scheduling and opens up the opportunity for LCSCA and ICFC to coordinate their services to further reduce their trip costs in a number of ways. For example, through the GoogleSheet-based software, LCSCA can notify ICFC when the organization has scheduled a bus headed to Portland, a distance of 350 miles from Lakeview, the county seat. In response, ICFC can add their own riders directly to the itinerary. In the future, the organizations could also broadcast this information to the general public, filling more seats on that bus while opening up a new travel opportunity to residents who may not otherwise travel. Meanwhile, the additional seats filled would reduce the cost per trip for all parties involved (customers, agencies that provide a subsidy, and the transportation providers themselves). It’s a win-win for resource-constrained organizations.
Enhanced Rider Experience
While the mechanics of the software happen behind the scenes, riders benefit directly. Riders gain more opportunities to travel as regional providers come to rely on one another when their own vehicle and driver capacity is constrained. Tapping this capacity won’t require any additional phone calls or website logins on the part of the rider. They simply make their request for a ride through their preferred provider and the system is set up to serve them. Ultimately, the rider could end up paying less for a ride if the system finds enough riders to share a given trip.
Inadequate transportation can be an acute barrier to health and quality of life in rural America. Rural and other small transportation providers have unique needs and smaller budgets than their urban counterparts. They need modern, appropriately scaled tools to help them operate their programs more efficiently in order to serve the growing demand for rides.
That is why AARP invested in this simple, replicable solution. As an open-source licensed tool, its code is freely available to other communities. Its developer, Kevin Chambers of Full Path, describes it as more of a project than a product, and acknowledges that more work is needed to fully realize its potential. Nonetheless, this first proof-of-concept in Lake County demonstrates its viability to improve transportation service delivery in rural America.
Jana Lynott, AICP, is a senior policy advisor on transportation and livable communities for the AARP Public Policy Institute. She recently published “Modernizing Demand-Responsive Transportation for the Age of New Mobility” and other works as part of a series on the Future of Transportation. Jana was a speaker at the May 4, 2021 webinar on transactional data specifications.