Communities with no or limited access to public transportation still exist across rural Appalachian Ohio. Nationally, only 11 percent of rural residents report having access to transportation near their home, compared to 83 percent of central cities in metropolitan statistical areas.[i] Whether it is access to transportation for Medicaid medical appointments, the need for senior citizens to get to the grocery store or other needs, limited resources can impact quality of life in a community.
The Noble County office of Ohio State University Extension researched and shared the need for more structured access to public transportation to the Noble County Board of Commissioners. While limited access to transportation exists in the greater Noble County community through eligibility-specific programs such as Veterans Services, Senior Services, or the Medicaid program, no general public transportation is available.
Identified by the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) as one of only 27 counties in the state without public transportation services, and also identified by the ODOT Regional Transportation Planning Organization’s (RTPO) needs analysis and transportation opinion survey reports as lacking a coordinated transit plan or services, Noble County offered great opportunity for partnership.
Research identified several successful rural regional transportation models; and one partner, Southeast Area Transit (SEAT), a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) serving nearby Guernsey and Muskingum Counties, came to the table to offer a pilot program. At no cost to the county, SEAT agreed to launch a six-month transportation pilot to help determine service needs.
As a social determinant of health, access to high-quality, affordable transportation is fundamental to mental, physical, and emotional well-being.[ii] The partnership window initially opened with a contract between SEAT and the Noble County Job and Family Services (JFS) program for Medicaid non-emergency medical transportation. Previously providing only gas vouchers for transport, the JFS Director saw a greater need.
Additional research and conversations led to a meeting with county leaders and representatives from the transit agency which yielded a pilot program offer. The pilot program will be a hands-on opportunity to introduce services to the rural communities and further determine needs and opportunities for additional contract services and future funding options.
Barriers to rural transportation systems include long travel distances, low population density, and lack of basic public transit infrastructure (vehicles, staffing). Access to transportation impacts the well-being of rural residents with issues as varied as food access, social support, education, employment, and community and health services.
Noble County’s population trends also reveal important indicators of current and future need for community services and supports including transportation. Noble County’s population is aging; the share of the population that is 60 years and older is projected to lead the state as it continues to grow over the next 20 years (49.5%), outpacing the state’s average (28.7%).[iii] For aging and disabled populations, public transportation can also help to reduce social isolation.[iv]
Partnerships assist with identifying deficiencies, recommending improvements, and developing real-world implementation strategies (especially when rural resources are at a minimum). Partnerships can also provide coordination of services and help improve transportation reach and efficiency, as well as sustainability.
Following the pilot program, partners will consider next steps for expansion of services with the goal to provide safe, reliable, and courteous public transportation in a community where there previously was very little offered.
[i] Promising Practices for Increasing Access to Transportation in Rural Communities – The Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis – April 2018
[ii] Rural Transportation: Challenges and Opportunities – University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center; Nov. 2017
[iii] Projections and Characteristics of the 60+ Population – Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University; Jan. 2014
[iv] Promising Practices for Increasing Access to Transportation in Rural Communities – The Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis – April 2018
Gwynn Stewart, educator, CD, OSU Extension-Noble County.