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ModeShift Episode 3: A new era for rural transit.

Is rural transit harder to reinvent than urban transit? Learn about the challenges — and successes — from leaders at the forefront.

Via Transportation •

Rural transit needs help. According to analysis from the National Transit Database , 87 percent of the least-productive bus networks are located in rural counties with populations lower than 50,000 residents.  These “transit deserts” in rural areas have major social, economic, and health consequences. How can technology and better planning solve the problem? In this episode, Andrei and Tiffany explore the rural transit divide. Across the country, small towns and cities are coming up with new solutions to old mobility problems – making rural transit smarter, more accessible, and more affordable.


  • Valdosta, Georgia Mayor Scott Matheson
  • Scott Bogren, executive director at Community Transportation for America
  • Caroline Rodriguez, executive director of High Valley Transit

Listen to ModeShift on Apple , Spotify , or anywhere you listen to podcasts. 


Andrei Greenawalt: Hey there ModeShift listeners, before we get started today, we wanted to tell you about another podcast that we think you might enjoy: Talking Headways from Streetsblog USA.

Tiffany Chu: With over 400 episodes, Talking Headways dives into every urban topic, from transportation to sustainable urban design, zoning, bus rapid transit, disability rights, dead malls, transportation access, archeology, and more.

Andrei Greenawalt: Listen to leaders in their respective fields to find out what makes them tick while reducing the silos that pop up in planning discourse. You can find Talking Headways at or wherever you get your podcasts.

Caroline Rodriguez: I love telling people, "Go to Ecker Hill Middle School after school, when the bell rings to see what the kids are doing." I have a middle schooler, so I have been there when she gets out of school. Do you know that half of those kids walk out of school and open their High Valley Transit app? Three of them piling into a micro vehicle. Going here, there, and everywhere. They can get where they're going, and they can participate in their community.

Andrei Greenawalt: That's Caroline Rodriguez. She's the executive director of High Valley Transit. And Ecker Middle School is in Park City, a well-known resort town in Utah. The app that she's talking about that these kids are using, it's to order a shared van to take them to anywhere they need to go after school. And the best part, it's completely free. And the phenomenon that Caroline's talking about at Ecker Middle School, it's a totally new one because High Valley Transit, the entire transit agency, it didn't even exist until last year.

Caroline Rodriguez: July 1, 2021 is our birthday.

Andrei Greenawalt: I don't think many people think about new transit agencies being created. So why was there a need for a new transit agency?

Caroline Rodriguez: So one of the things that people do not realize about Park City, when they hear, "I'm going to Park City." Park City is a teeny tiny town in Summit County.

Andrei Greenawalt: Summit is one of the fastest growing counties in America. It's a rural community nestled in an area of the Rocky Mountains called the Wasatch Back. Around 40,000 people live there, spread out over 2,000 square miles, and only 8,500 of them are in Park City.

Caroline Rodriguez: Our workers travel from quite a distance. Usually, up a mountain pass in the winter to get to their jobs. There are two ways into town and two ways out, and we're constricted by mountain range. So you can imagine, you can't just put more people in cars and widen the roads and put them in because we're very constrained.

We have to find a better way to do it, and also a sustainable way that will help us to maintain our beautiful outdoor area. So we took about a year to discuss what that would look like and then it was almost like a switch was flipped. And Summit County elected officials said, "Let's do this. Let's stand up this regional transit agency and be the reliable source for community transit in the Wasatch Back." It was six months of planning before we flipped the switch on standing up transit service, which looking back sounds insane.

Andrei Greenawalt: Can you live in Summit County today and really access your job, your education, everything else in your life without a car, or will you be able to in the future?

Caroline Rodriguez: Yes, you can live car-free in Summit County.

Tiffany Chu: Wow. Car-free in a county that's almost 2,000 square miles? That's pretty incredible.

Andrei Greenawalt: I know. And Summit County is not the only rural area that's creating new transit in this way. Across the country, small towns and cities are coming up with new solutions to old mobility problems. Making world transit smarter, more accessible, and more affordable. I'm Andre Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu: And I'm Tiffany Chu. This is ModeShift.

Andrei Greenawalt: A podcast about the past, present, and future of how we move. A lot of us in America grow up with the idea that public transit only exists in our biggest cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco. I know I did.

Tiffany Chu: And I have to admit, before I started my career in transportation, this was my perception too. But around the country there are actually a lot of rural networks. Mostly, infrequent bus service near highways or Dial-a-Ride advanced service that needs to be booked far in advance.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, I was surprised to learn about how many rural geographies are covered with transit. Most counties in the US have some transit service, and of course that doesn't mean people in every town or city have easy access to those services, but they do exist.

Scott Bogren: But the numbers, the volume of service, it's nowhere near what an urban area generates. I mean, New York City has millions of trips a day. There are no rural operators that are anywhere close to that.

Andrei Greenawalt: That's Scott Bogren. He's the executive director at the Community Transportation Association of America which represents rural transit agencies across the nation. And he knows a lot about what it takes to set up transit systems in rural America. This is something he first discovered as a newspaper journalist over 30 years ago.

Scott Bogren: My first real connection was they sent me to the central part of Pennsylvania for a week, and I met with rural transit systems. In the late '80s, rural transit was just getting its feet underneath it. It had initially been funded in the late '70s with a series of demonstration projects, ironically out of the Federal Highway Administration.

I wanted to write about things that mattered. Previously, I was covering city council meetings and things that I could barely stay awake for, much less than have to go back and write about. My first trip was in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. I was on a rural transit bus, and they had those old radios, two-way radios was the way they dispatched. The driver got lost. I was sitting in the back. We were in the middle of this open area. He called and told the dispatcher where he was, and the dispatcher said to him, "Go down this road about two miles, and I want you to turn left at the barking dog." We drove down the road, and a dog came running along a fence line, barked at us. We turned left, and there was a passenger there waiting to pick up. I remember immediately thinking, "Oh, this is cool. These are the kinds of stories that I want to tell." I went from writing to policy to... I ran membership. It was never my goal or my objective was to work in public transportation, but suddenly I found myself doing that, and I really liked it.

Andrei Greenawalt: Who needs GPS when you have barking dogs.

Scott Bogren: Well, yeah. I don't think that's the way we do it anymore. But at the time, what it showed was the ingenuity and their ability to do a lot with a little which continues today. That was just the way they did it back then.

Tiffany Chu: What a great story. I love that Scott became so interested in rural transit that he's changed his career. It actually rings true to my story where, before we started Remix, I was a designer working at a nonprofit called Code for America. My colleagues and I built this grassroots digital prototype to help residents of San Francisco suggest better transit routes to the local transit agency, and someone tweeted it online. Before we knew it, overnight we had gotten about 200 emails from planners all over the world, who saw this tweet that went viral, and wrote to us saying, "Hey, saw what you built. Loved it. I want to use it for my real-life transportation project, and can you add 20 to 30 extra features?"

And that was the moment, our barking dog moment. When we realized that there were something so interesting that we had stumbled upon because we had thrown together this fun tool and it took off. A few weeks later, I had a company. Seven years later, we sold it. It's been a journey, a wild ride, and it's completely changed the trajectory of my career.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, I think that's so interesting. I think that in talking to Scott, one thing that has kept him in this space for so long, is that he sees the impact of rural transit that it has on people and communities. The systems that he has been looking at and working with for decades now. They may not serve a huge number of people at once, but the value of each of those rides is really high, and it didn't take long for Scott to see that.

Scott Bogren: I would ride in the late '80s and early '90s, and it was routine for a passenger to get on the vehicle and say, "I didn't leave my house for three years until this service arrived." That was a real eye opener for me having lived largely in urban parts of the country. It was like, "Wow, that kind of isolation."

Big trip generators in terms of our rural folks are going to be healthcare, Walmart, grocery trips. Many times, I've learned this lesson, they are taking older ladies to get their hair done. I was giving Senate testimony one time and one of the senators or one of their staff looked down on that, and I said, "You get on a vehicle, and you'll see how important those trips are to people's health and wellbeing." And so, it's always been more of a quasi-human social service which is where its roots were than being a public utility like an urban metro system would be.

Tiffany Chu: Do not underestimate the importance of getting someone to an appointment no matter if it's for hair or the doctor. We know people living in rural areas tend to be older. According to the census, just under a fifth of the rural population is older than 65. That's significantly higher than urban areas, and social isolation in rural areas is a major risk factor. I've actually come across a couple studies showing that social isolation increases risk of heart disease, stroke, and death by 30%.

Andrei Greenawalt: And this is a widespread problem. According to Smart Growth America, more than a million households in rural counties don't have access to a vehicle. It's harder for these people to get to jobs, to see friends, to make it to medical appointments, or the grocery store. For that reason, this model that we talked about earlier in rural Utah, where you summon a shared transit vehicle in real time on an app, it's about way more than just convenience, and it's spreading in rural counties all across America. Can you just tell me a little bit about Valdosta?

Mayor Scott Matheson: Yeah. Fantastic town right on the Florida border. Long known as the last gas stop before Florida because Florida taxes the gas a lot more than the state of Georgia does. Fill up before you hit Florida and save a few bucks.

Andrei Greenawalt: That's Scott Matheson. He's the mayor of Valdosta, Georgia, a city of 56,000 people. It was named one of America's Friendliest Cities by Rand McNally. So I'm sure it would be an extremely pleasant place to fill up on gas. On the way to Florida. Mayor Matheson, he was elected in 2020 and before that he'd been in radio for 35 years. He's purchased four local radio stations, and to this day he still hosts a local conservative radio talk show.

Mayor Scott Matheson: You can see my smile. It's a great way to make a living. It truly is.

Andrei Greenawalt: And a central pillar of his election platform was not something that usually tops the list of conservative radio personalities: public transit. Valdosta has a university, a medical center, a major air force base, and 40,000 people per day come up to the city from Northern Florida. But the city had no transit system, none whatsoever. He remembers a particular moment from the campaign when this came up and how he seized on the opportunity.

Mayor Scott Matheson: So I wanted something that was affordable, portable. I started looking at Uber and Lyft and seeing if we could subsidize that. I started looking at it, microtransit as a model and then on-demand transit seemed to rise to the top as I studied them. And a gentleman before me that was running against me, who I considered pretty prominent as far an opponent. They said, "What are you going to do about the transit solution?" He stood up and says, "We don't have a transportation problem in the city of Valdosta." He goes, "Last study I got headed says there's 2.5 vehicles per household." And goes so, "I don't see a problem there." And I'm sitting in my chair squirming down going, "Oh, what a gift." So obviously, I jumped up, said, "I'll solve it tomorrow and solve it with a modern-day solution known as on-demand transit." That was my red-letter day during the campaign.

Andrei Greenawalt: On the day you were sworn in, what did that look like? How did people get around? What were their options? In Valdosta.

Mayor Scott Matheson: They waited for a cousin to get a car and to load up and pick up multiple friends or otherwise to tow them around town. It's been sad for a long time. And again, we knew the need was there. Anybody with two eyes could see the need was there and then the national discussion starts in on things like food deserts and things where people that with no mobility. Doesn't matter if you got great healthcare, it doesn't matter. There's 20 supermarkets in the town. If you can't get to them, you can't get to them. You got nothing.

Andrei Greenawalt: In April 2021, the city launched Valdosta On-Demand, and now residents can order rides through an app or a phone call in real time. The cars are black and gold, the same colors as the high school football team. And pretty quickly the program was in high demand.

Mayor Scott Matheson: Though, when it launched, we held our breath. The studies that we had from a pilot program in the past might haven anticipated about 1,800 rides max per month. And obviously, we average in that first year. Well over 300 rides a day with what, 65,000 rides in our first calendar year.

Andrei Greenawalt: And then the service started getting national attention.

Senator Jon Ossoff: In the last several years, communities across Georgia have embraced microtransit. Valdosta's new microtransit program is expected to average 170 riders. And this January completed close to 300 rides per day. The majority of these riders have a household income of $25,000 per year or less.

Andrei Greenawalt: That's US Senator Jon Ossoff who represents Georgia. He was speaking at a committee hearing, and here he is asking Scott Bogren, the rural transit expert you heard from earlier about how this service is impacting people.

Senator Jon Ossoff: With the increased funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Mr. Bogren, how do you see microtransit transforming transit service for small cities like Valdosta, Georgia and rural communities over the next five years?

Scott Bogren: Well, what it will do is it will provide an entirely new way to serve areas. Typically, a city the size of Valdosta would've had fixed route service, maybe operating buses at an hour headway. What the on demand model's proving in Valdosta is it can increase service, serve more people, and do it at a lower cost. And we view that as a very important model that we want to see all other communities investing in and trying. It's a place where we can partner with a private sector, and also where we can onboard the technology that really makes the service more relevant to a passenger than what we have often done in communities that size which is the bare minimum when it comes to a fixed route service.

Andrei Greenawalt: And the senator has actually traveled to Valdosta to hop in the band with the mayor.

Mayor Scott Matheson: So he became a big fan early on, and we started relaying to his office that we had a need to expand. We started relaying the stats and the bounce rate. He came up with congressional spending of almost a million dollars if we expanded our model. Again, we couldn't just claim that money and say thanks. We'll use it to operate if we expanded our model, so we started looking at the best way to do that. And I think we're doing a good job, as I said, and now we're projecting. We're doing 446 last week was our peak numbers. So we project 500 easily, a very short order. So it's good to have a senator on your side.

Tiffany Chu: It actually makes me smile to hear a conservative Republican talk about public transit like this and finding a way to work with the democratic senator to create a workable solution. We know transit should be a nonpartisan issue, but like so many things today too often it falls along partisan lines.

Andrei Greenawalt: I totally agree. I mean, first I should say I'm not completely objective here. I work for Via, the company that helps set up these ride services with Valdosta as well as High Valley Transit. But I think it's important to talk about why this transcends political boundaries. Sometimes, people think leaders look to tech because it's innovative or cool or something. Maybe that sometimes happens, but in Valdosta the traditional alternative just wasn't going to work. Why not just launch a more traditional bus system where they're running on a fixed route with a fixed schedule?

Mayor Scott Matheson: For the obvious reasons I've already stated, but subtle reasons that I haven't. Our roads couldn't accept that. Small city is two-lane roads a lot of times, its main arteries that handle 35, 40,000 cars a day. We would have to develop a working model and then start expanding roadways. And there's no town in America that has that kind of money as well. We just actually couldn't handle the circulation of a large bus system. It just didn't work.

Tiffany Chu: So what's interesting here is that while the technology layer and business model are new, the concept of requesting transit on demand, also known as demand response, has been a core part of rural transit for decades.

Andrei Greenawalt: That's so true. Rural areas have been using an analog version of these systems for a long time. Here's Scott Bogren again.

Scott Bogren: I've been working with agencies for 30 years who are on demand. Dial-a-Ride, you call up, you schedule and book a trip and then the trip arrives when you scheduled it and off you go. That was the general model for rural transit. Well, nowadays, it's technology. The ability to see a trip, know it's coming, book, pay for, plan for, all on a phone. That is just as desirable now in rural America as it is in the urban space. And so, the challenge for them isn't getting on demand working. These systems have been doing that for 30 years. It's breaking out of two-day advanced notice windows. I was working with one of our members, and in doing some on demand mobility, they went from a three-day advanced notice window for older adults in their community to 15 minutes. That's a life changer. And I just would ask anybody, you try to live your life with every trip you make having to be planned out 72 hours in advance and then move that to 15 minutes and understand it's a sea change.

Andrei Greenawalt: I think we can all agree that the smartphone and software has changed almost everything about our lives, including even how we request vehicles. Caroline Rodriguez from High Valley Transit gave an example using me as the character.

Caroline Rodriguez: It used to be that Lois in the office was scheduling Andrei's ride with a pencil, and we relied on the driver to decide the best route and how to get Andrei here and there and could you put him on the vehicle with someone else? What I suspected, but honestly was not completely prepared for is the level of efficiency that introducing technology into demand response brings. What technology could bring to our community transit operation to make big buses, small vans, mountainous routes, all work together to provide this super efficient, super high level of transit service? Even to folks who quite literally live on the top of a mountain pass and do not see the sun for five months out of the year.

Tiffany Chu: As I'm listening to these stories, they feel more relevant than ever right now. We've all been coping with inflation at the grocery store, at the gas pump, and this is acute in rural areas because of car dependency. People living in rural areas have seen living costs rise and spending power drop at far higher rates than people in urban areas.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, when I asked Caroline about the impact of expanding transit options in the community, she pointed to exactly that.

Caroline Rodriguez: So in general, people spend 15, 20, up to 30% of their income on transportation costs, whether that's maintaining a vehicle, putting gas in their car, or paying for a public transit pass. Well, as we know, there are many, many people within every community where they are just living on that edge where any unexpected expense can really throw their household into chaos.

We here at High Valley Transit are a completely fare-free community transit system. So the fact that we have this really robust transit system, fare-free, available — we were there right at the point when all of these families were trying to decide, "Do we spend extra income putting that gas in our car? That's probably not as efficient as it could be, probably costs a lot to fill up, or High Valley Transit is right outside our door. It gets us where we're going, it's going to be safe." Then that frees up some of that income to pay for milk, which has also gone up 30%. And those impacts are real and those are things that people don't realize until they're right in the middle of it.

Andrei Greenawalt: There are serious economic and social challenges in rural America, and affordable mobility is a key piece of the puzzle to overcoming them. Being able to get around affordably affects the entire community. And so, we wanted to quickly look at two examples of how. The first is riders with mobility limitations because of a disability or a chronic pain.

Patricia Robinson: When I first moved to North Carolina, I was using the bus, and I didn't like, it was very hard with me with a stroller or anything like that.

Andrei Greenawalt: That's Patricia Ann Robinson. She lives in Wilson, North Carolina, which is another southern town of about 50,000 people. And a couple of years ago, Wilson also rolled out an on demand transit service. Patricia has two young kids, she also has debilitating pain in her back.

Patricia Robinson: I got good days, and I got bad days.

Andrei Greenawalt: And on the bad days it's very hard for her to move.

Patricia Robinson: I can't walk probably at all. I have to have the walker to try to help me on my kids. Then some days I just, them legs ain't going to move. And Via has been good because my daughters can get in the share ride and do what needs to be done for me. I can do doctor visits more. You're able to get picked up, and you don't have to go so far like well with a bus ride you got to walk so far, but with shared service is a lot easier for mothers like me with children to get around versus catching a cab because you're going to spend a lot of more money to get around when you're trying to get somewhere and get to work and you can't, you don't have the funds.

Andrei Greenawalt: Patricia relies on the service to get to physical therapy, to get her kids to activities, to get to the store, and not having to wait for a long time to get a bus or call a day or two in advance to get a ride. It's transformed her life.

Patricia Robinson: I remember when I first found out my back issues, I couldn't walk as much I used to. Trying to walk across the street with them and my kids be holding my hand, "Come on Ma, the car's going to hit you." But I can't walk for so fast. I mean, I don't know what to do. But when shared service... Somebody introduced me to it, and I did know nothing about it, and I'm glad I did. When I can't walk from here to the end of the corner, it picks me up from my home. Now, I like that. I've been able to walk a lot more since I'm not putting so much strain on my back.

Andrei Greenawalt: The second piece relates to food deserts. The USDA estimates that 19 million people live in areas with limited access to quality fresh food at a supermarket. Tiffany, do you want to guess what the top reason for that is?

Tiffany Chu: I'm going to go out on a limb and say transportation options.

Andrei Greenawalt: Bingo.

Tiffany Chu: We're actually dealing with food deserts here in a major city like Boston. Whereas smaller rural communities with much less density have so much larger distances between homes and retail and grocery stores that folks need to traverse, and it makes it that much harder.

Andrei Greenawalt: Yeah, and I think even the folks that can't access those places, just the amount of time it takes to get to them, I think is a huge challenge. And just for folks who can't access grocery stores, that particular thing it's a real problem in Georgia.

There was a study that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did, found that nearly two million people in the state live in food deserts. And similar issues persist for medical care and social services. I think transit can play a major role in overcoming that problem and it's something that Mayor Matheson also talked about.

Can you just talk a little bit more about food deserts? Because I think I'm picking up that that was one aspect of this, it was very important to you, and we talk about the impact that this has had on that.

Mayor Scott Matheson: Yeah, and that's just one catch phrase, and that again has a definition. I believe in a larger urban center that's four miles from the supermarket and no access as well. To us, that's probably a shorter distance. But it's still somebody who can't get there to get the food is to have to beg a ride, to beg a 10 and 12, $15 cab ride just to go get groceries, and when they could have put that toward groceries. So we were solving that, but that goes for healthcare deserts, and a thousand other deserts as well. If somebody who doesn't have reliable transportation loses a job because they can't get to that job during that period of time. People might rally around them for a couple of days, but they can't come pick them up for weeks and weeks until they can afford to repair that vehicle.

Andrei Greenawalt: So Tiffany, we have two competing trends here. On the one hand, we've got inflation, income inequality, isolation and aging population, straining underfunded public transit in rural areas. But on the other hand, we've got an infrastructure bill that devotes a lot more money to rural transit. We've got new technology and business models for connecting people to rides in real time which is even making it possible to live car-free in small cities and more remote areas. What in your mind needs to happen to push these trends and make rural public transit as easy as hopping in a car parked in the driveway?

Tiffany Chu: Well, I think one of the most important things is a sense of reliability. The reason why a car parked in a driveway is so enticing to people is because they know it's going to be there. You open your door and it's there.

Whereas, transit is not always like that, but if transit can always be there because either you live in a place that has enough density to support a bus route that comes every 10 minutes. You can just walk outside, and on average you'll wait five minutes for the bus. But in less dense areas where the density cannot support a bus coming every 10 minutes, if you can summon a vehicle with a click of a button and then you can share that vehicle with others so you're not over utilizing resources, that is a sense of reliability and trust that people need to have before they're willing to throw their car away.

Andrei Greenawalt: I think that reliability piece is so key to getting people to use transit. And I think to get there, in rural America, we're definitely going to need more investments, more funding. I do think as you have these success stories growing across the country about the benefits of transit in rural areas, I do think that has the potential to change the political dynamic a bit to draw in more and more folks into the idea that we should be investing in transit across the country because it is not something that is specific only to the big cities anymore.

And so, I think along with investment, we need leadership from local officials who are willing to innovate and convince their communities that this is worth trying. And I do feel like this is something that can be solved. I think it is being solved and everyone I talk to expressed that same sense of optimism.

Scott Bogren: The main thing that gives me hope is the industry's history. It's always been creative and innovative. It's always made a lot out of a little. I definitely feel like that history will serve us well and is going to allow at a different scale those metrics of independence of contributing to fighting climate change and air quality and all. We're going to see all that stuff move into rural America. And smaller communities can do this stuff. They're much more nimble.

Caroline Rodriguez: Community transit can be that link to living a full successful community driven lifestyle, even in a rural area. The way technology is supporting community transit now is the way of the future, and it is the way that community transit can fulfill the promise that we've made for the last 30 years.

Andrei Greenawalt: ModeShift is produced by Via and partnership with Post Script Media. Via's technology enables partners to create end-to-end transit systems. From planning better networks in streets to operating efficient public transit. Learn more at This show is hosted by me, Andre Greenawalt.

Tiffany Chu: And me, Tiffany Chu. If you like what you hear and think others would benefit from this show, please rate and review us in the app of your choice and send a link to the transit nerd in your life. The show is produced by Stephen Lacey, Alexandria Herr, Anne Bailey, Cecily Meza-Martinez, and Dalvin Aboagye of Post Script Media. It's also produced by Francis Cooperman, Andy Ambrosius, and Andrei Greenawalt from Via. Sean Marquand composed the theme song. Sean Marquand and Gregg Vilranc mix the show.

Andrei Greenawalt: Thanks for listening. Stay with us as we continue to explore these topics more deeply. We've got plenty more on the way.