Iowa’s rural public transit – making lives better
You can’t slow Rosie Osterburg down. With several decades under her belt, Osterburg, who lives in Spencer, doesn’t drive, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get wherever she needs to go. From her exercise classes four days a week at the local YMCA to medical appointments in Sioux City, Osterburg relies on her rural transit system called RIDES to help her maintain her schedule.
Osterburg said, “Everyone there is so friendly, and they have the best drivers. Those guys are the sweetest guys in Spencer. I love my drivers. When I had to go to Sioux City for a medical appointment, the driver was so good to stop any time I needed to make a pit stop. And of course, he drove me through McDonald's to get my caramel frappe. Whether I need to go to the grocery store or to a friend’s house or to a medical appointment, all I have to do is call them. I never have to worry about how I’m going to get where I need to go.”
Rural areas by definition don’t have large populations centers and keeping an adequate pool of drivers is a challenge. RIDES Chief Operating Officer Cindy Voss stated, “The majority of our drivers have retired from other careers and they work for us to give back to the community. Since many of our drivers are 65+, there was some hesitation during COVID. But the dedication these people have to our communities, can’t be underestimated.”
That dedication is also felt on the phones. RIDES Chief Executive Officer Hugh Lively said, “Our passengers become like family. Many times, when passengers call in to schedule a trip, they do not even need to identify themselves. The dispatchers are so familiar and so invested, they can tell who is calling by the sound of the voice on the other end of the line.”
“Transportation is fluid and RIDES is evolving with it,” explains Lively. We function much like a taxi service. You can call and schedule a ride and we’ll get you door-to-door wherever you need to go, whether that destination is inside or outside of our service area.”
Tom Jewett of Spirit Lake typically rides his bike to do most daily tasks, but if the distance is farther than he wants to ride or he’s going to have a lot of things to bring back, he calls RIDES. “Scheduling a ride is very easy and it’s very economical. I like to use them when I go to the grocery store. I typically go about once a month and there’s just too much
to carry on my bike. Recently, I used RIDES for a trip to a wedding at a local state park. I probably could have ridden my bike, but I was dressed for a wedding, not a bike ride.”
“We’re the region’s best-kept secret,” said Voss. “People see us as just serving the elderly or those with special needs, which we absolutely do, but our service is so much more.”
Voss added, “Rural public transit is much different than urban public transit. Many times people use urban public transit because it’s convenient. For our clients, it is more of a necessity when they are unable to drive for varying reasons. If they could not rely on us, they wouldn’t be able to do the things they need or want to do.”
As with many industries, funding is always an issue in rural transit. The pandemic didn’t make those financial struggles easier. Lively said, “We receive state and federal funding and Medicaid reimbursements, but providing services to the smaller communities is a challenge. We stretch the dollars as tightly as possible to continue to provide vital services. We see ourselves as a thread in the fabric that binds us all together and we won’t let that fabric unravel.”
To see more on the RIDES story, go to - https://youtu.be/Z9FRE8F9vN4
ABOUT IOWA’S TRANSIT SYSTEMS
While Iowa has several public transit routes systems that serve large, medium, and small urban communities, our state is still largely rural. To increase the mobility of our rural neighbors, 16 regional public transit systems serve the more remote areas of the state’s 99 counties and are critical to Iowans not just surviving but thriving.
These regional providers function through a variety of different business models. Some are non-profit entities, and some are quasi-governmental. Some are departments of a larger agency such as a council of governments or community action program while others are independent, stand-alone organizations. What they all have in common is a dedication to serve those most in need of transportation.