Innovation brings new transportation option to rural America

Most of us take our mobility for granted. We grab our keys and head out to work, buy groceries, and shuttle our kids to movies and soccer practice—all without a second thought. But for the one-third of Americans who don’t drive and many others who lack access to a working vehicle, transportation options don’t come easy—especially in rural America, where transportation has long been a seemingly intractable problem.

The technology revolution is showing potential to help solve that problem and enable more Americans to take part in the economic and social lives of their communities. One new and promising service is Liberty.

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The Robinson family at a neighbor's dairy farm

 

21st Century Model Meets Rural America

Liberty has been described as the Uber for rural America, since it connects riders to drivers through a mobile app similar to those used by Lyft and Uber. But to founder and CEO Valerie Lefler, “Liberty is about more than just giving rides. It’s about providing Mobility as a Service.”

The company engages local partners to identify a community’s transportation gaps and then works to fill them. Liberty charges customers $1.10 to book and $1 dollar per mile on average. In addition to the app, customers can schedule rides through Liberty’s call center. Liberty uses area-specific mobility managers who provide a direct line of communication to customers and also work to build partnerships in the community.

Just launched in 2016, Liberty’s rural strategy has already brought it to three states (Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota), with seven total expected by year’s end. Applications to bring service to more than 60 counties in 2018 could mean the company will be operating in 16 states by the end of next year.

Target Market Typified

Yankton, S.D., (county population 22,616) epitomizes rural transportation challenges. Buses require a 24-hour advance reservation and only operate weekdays 7:30 to 4:30, and taxicab supply doesn’t meet demand.

The city recently was able to secure a $25,000 grant from the local economic development corporation to bring Liberty to Yankton County. The Mayor took an inaugural ride on June 30.

“They are not looking to own the market, but fill gaps in the service,” said City Commissioner Nathan Johnson, who was instrumental in bringing Liberty to town.

Beth Robinson was one of Liberty’s first customers. Robinson is a mother of three children and a family caregiver for her husband, Chris, who has a terminal heart defect and uses a wheelchair part-time. Since the onset of Chris’ illness in 2010, Beth’s caregiving responsibilities have prevented her from working outside the home. The family relies almost exclusively on Chris’ disability income.

Locating rental housing that was both affordable and accessible in town proved challenging. They rented a five bedroom farmhouse outside town at about half the price of a three bedroom apartment in Yankton. But soon after moving, their vehicle broke down. It’s been out of service ever since.

Then Beth discovered Liberty. Chris, after catching an accessible bus for the 17-mile journey into town, was unable to schedule his return trip. Liberty does not yet have access to accessible vehicles in Yankton, but the area manager and her husband, a liberty driver, came through. They lifted the 150-pound wheelchair into the back of a small SUV and got Chris safely home, groceries and all.

“That had us for customers for life after that,” said Beth.

Since then, the family has taken 6-7 Liberty trips—to buy groceries, check out books from the library, and get her kids to a summer cooking class.

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Whether innovative companies such as Liberty will be able to survive in resource-constrained rural markets and whether they can complement, rather than compete with, existing public transportation are open questions. To enter a market, such services will likely need start-up funds and local partners who can help subsidize trips for those unable to pay the full cost of a ride. But the enthusiasm communities have shown for this service gives hope that a generations-old problem for rural America just might have a solution. Such issues and solutions will be explored in more detail in future blog posts.

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About the author:  Jana Lynott is a senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute, where she manages the AARP transportation research agenda. As a land use and transportation planner, she brings practical expertise to the research field.

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