By: Janetta Deppa, Senior Technical Project Management Analyst
The views expressed in In Focus are exclusively those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect official positions of their employers or clients. References to materials or services in the public domain do not imply endorsement from those entities.
Shopping for groceries, picking your children up from school, attending a doctor’s appointment, and visiting loved ones: what do these activities have in common? All of them require transportation, something that many of us take for granted on a regular basis. Yet, without access to a car or reliable transit route, life’s daily interactions, chores, and necessities become much more difficult to reach. Transportation impacts our ability to find and keep a job, to socialize, to feed our families, and to access medical care. Thus, mobility should be taken as an important indicator for wellbeing.
Regrettably, one’s quality of transportation access is widely variable on one’s location and income level. Research illustrates that rural and remote areas of the United States are constrained by a lack of mobility. In particular, Native American reservations are underserved. Reservations are often located in extremely remote parts of the country, where public transit is scarce, and individuals must rely on personal vehicles for transportation. Yet for many, owning a car can be out of the question. The cost of a private vehicle is not only the car, but also the insurance payments, gas, maintenance, and driver’s license required to drive it. This forces many to rely on friends, family, or neighbors for basic needs, which further constrains mobility and choice.
Additionally, because American Indian nations are sovereign, transportation infrastructure within these areas receives fewer resources and maintenance provided outright. In general, the poor conditions of roads, bridges, and transit systems across Indian country can be equated with below average health and safety among tribal members, and high crash and roadway fatality rates. To overcome transit-related challenges requires partnerships between local tribes and the federal government, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Tribal Technical Assistance Program, local assistance programs, state agencies, and local governments.
American Indian nations across the US have learned to work with these multiple partners to source transit-related funding with the intention of improving transit safety, reliability, and access. Often, these initiatives take the form of local shuttles, which coordinate with residents to bring them to work, to shop, and to access services. Initiatives often begin very small-scale, slowly building up in time as they gain awareness within the community, begin to charge fare, and expand their ridership. Some programs grow to become fixed-route bus lines, which either link to other public transit routes (again increasing mobility options) or create their own localized transit systems.
Kayak Public Transit is a great example of a fully integrated transit route, developed by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). The transit system started in 2001, and was primarily used to help individuals living on the reservation to access healthcare and shopping. In the span of 18 years, the program has gone from a program with one shuttle and twelve riders to one with nearly 90,000 riders annually. It has become a fully integrated transit system, and the primary transit option across rural areas throughout Oregon and Washington. Kayak has developed into a program that benefits the tribe as well as non-tribal residents across both states by creating a reliable service available, dependable, and accessible for all. Thus, this tribal initiative “fills the gaps” for rural and remote residents who would otherwise be unreached by federal and state public transit routes.
Transportation is a vital factor for economic growth, especially for Native American communities challenged by remoteness. Examples of innovative, community-initiated transit solutions developed by Native American nations represent encouraging efforts to reduce mobility constraints. In the future, we must work to extend transit options that are reliable, affordable, and safe. Until then, tribes continue to pave the way by increasing mobility in remote and rural areas.
Interested in learning more?
Visit the National Rural Transit Assistance Program’s Resources page
Watch an ICF-facilitated Office of Family Assistance webinar on Overcoming Transportation Barriers: Partnering with TANF and NEW Agencies to Develop Transportation Assistance Strategies
Browse the SSRC’s library selections focused on improving transit in rural and remote areas