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Rural Dispatches is a yearlong series about the challenges and opportunities in Minnesota’s small towns, made possible by a grant from the Blandin Foundation.

Little bus on the prairie: Rural transit, faced with demographic change, adapts and evolves

To an extent, transit systems in rural Minnesota respond to riders’ needs. While many buses travel fixed routes, others routinely deviate from set routes to pick up people who have called dispatch centers for rides.

Jim Hansen, a transit driver for SMART, on his route between Owatonna and Blooming Prairie.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

BLOOMING PRAIRIE, Minn. – On most work days, Jim Hansen climbs behind the wheel of a 16-seat, turtle-top transit bus in Owatonna and winds his way a dozen miles to this small town. Sometimes, he heads straight south on Highway 218; more often, depending on his passenger list and the weather, he travels the back roads.

Around 3 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, Hansen picked up Brian Scott, who was catching a ride back to his home a few miles from Blooming Prairie after spending the day in Owatonna, where he had shopped at Hy-Vee and visited his mother in a senior living home. Scott’s pickup was on the fritz, so he called for a ride. The bus showed up around 7:15 a.m.

“It does come a little early in the morning,” Scott said with a chuckle. But he wasn’t complaining. The bus picked him up and dropped him off right at the end of his gravel driveway, giving him a hassle-free day in town.

While public transit in the Twin Cities largely serves people commuting to work – and is framed in the public mind by shiny coaches and sleek light-rail cars – it has a much different look and feel in rural Minnesota.

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Here, small buses — like the No. 213 Hansen was driving — mainly serve people with limited transportation options: students and the elderly, the developmentally disabled, immigrants who have yet to obtain driver’s licenses.

For many of these people, public transit isn’t merely a simpler way to get around; it’s basically the only way.

Responding to riders

In 2014, according to the Center for Rural Policy and Development, a Mankato-based think tank, public transit systems provided 12 million rides in Minnesota regions outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area (and nearly 98 million rides in the Twin Cities). About 70 percent of transit riders using the most rural systems reported not having either a car or a driver’s license, according to 2010 figures.

The center, which issued a transit report in January, ahead of the legislative session, predicts that more Minnesotans in rural areas will need public transit in the coming years, especially as the elderly population increases.

The report also notes the varied nature of public transit across Minnesota.

For instance, the larger regional centers, such as Rochester and Duluth, have transit systems with elements that are familiar to transit users in the Twin Cities: terminals, multiple routes, park-and-ride options. Meanwhile, smaller cities like Owatonna, which has a population of 25,000, often have scheduled, fixed routes that move people around the city daily, stopping at shopping malls and other popular locations.

But to an extent, transit systems in rural Minnesota respond to the needs of riders. While many buses travel fixed routes, others routinely deviate from set routes to pick up people who have called dispatch centers for rides.

“When you are talking about the Willmars and the Bemidjis of the world, you are talking about more of a demand-response system, something that looks like Metro Mobility, with curb-to-curb service,” said Todd Gottfried, MnDOT’s Office of Transit program director. “In some ways, that can be more user friendly than in the Twin Cities with fixed-route service.”

However, he added, that can be inefficient, too.

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“Some rural service might pick up one person and travel eight miles. Those kinds of routes are longer and the frequency (that they are traversed) is less,” he said.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development calculates that rural transit systems carry 11 people per hour, at a cost of $7.39 per rider; Twin Cities transit systems, meanwhile, carry 26 people an hour, at a much cheaper $4.50 per rider.

Source: Center for Rural Policy and Development
The Center for Rural Policy and Development compared costs between Twin Cities and rural transit systems.

Public transit is also evolving toward what Gottfried called “a whole other section of transportation” that goes beyond picking people up at certain locations and dropping them off at others (“curb-to-curb” service). In this emerging scenario, transit systems hope to do more to serve people with physical disabilities, perhaps by having workers go into homes and help people get outside to waiting vehicles. Organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides support for military veterans, are involved in the initiative.

SMART transit

Five years ago, the Legislature asked the Minnesota Department of Transportation to look for ways to make rural transit more efficient, possibly through mergers or consolidations of existing systems. Rural transit has long been run by local government agencies, nonprofits and community action groups. Besides buses, some systems also use vans and cars.

The Southern Minnesota Area Rural Transit system (SMART) was created two years ago through the merger of transit operations in Freeborn, Mower and Steele counties; in January, the system run in Waseca County joined SMART.

Melinda Estey, SMART’s manager, said the merger has allowed for more consistent safety training for drivers, along with streamlined fares and a uniform token system for riders in the region. Moreover, one dispatch center, in Austin, now serves transit riders in all four counties.

Each of the largest cities in SMART – Owatonna, Austin, Albert Lea and Waseca, regional centers with populations ranging from 9,000 to 25,000 – has fixed route service with buses that circle the community throughout the day.

In Owatonna, transit stops include Cash Wise Foods, the hospital and the public library. Besides Blooming Prairie, a transit bus also travels to Medford, a town of 1,200 people 8 miles north of Owatonna, twice each day.

The fares seem reasonable: $2 for a one-way ride within the city; $2.50 for a one-way trip countywide; $30 for a monthly pass; $25 for a monthly pass for students and seniors.

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Getting to know them

Transit drivers can play many roles – driver and confidant among them. Robin Stoen, who has been driving for seven years, has gotten to know the dozen Somali women who ride her bus to the Adult Learning Center for English classes. She knows the names of her riders’ pets. She made a purple scarf for one woman who routinely rides her bus.

Hansen, too, is getting to know his clientele. As he drives, he monitors an electronic tablet, mounted to his right, in case any calls for rides come in from the dispatch center. Six weeks into the job, he already knows many of his riders’ names and can anticipate calls for service on particular days.

Working his way through several Owatonna neighborhoods before heading for Blooming Prairie, Hansen stopped to pick up two students at Pillsbury College Prep (who told him they had arranged for a different ride); a woman returning from her nursing home job to her parents’ dairy farm; and Scott, the man with the broken-down pickup truck.

In Blooming Prairie, which has about 2,000 residents, Hansen picked up one passenger for the return trip to Owatonna. It was a slow day; normally, he said, he transports about 30 riders on the Blooming Prairie route, which runs twice a day.

After hellos and some small talk, Hansen and his passenger sat quietly as the bus sped across the grayish landscape, past snow-covered fields.

“It’s gratifying work,” Hansen said. “We give them rides so they can work and give back something to their community. We have some good conversations and I get to know them a little bit. I know they really appreciate us.”