Demand-response transit system finds success in county

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A Clinton County Blue Bus seen from a distance near downtown St. Johns. The Blue Bus is part of a demand-response transit system that serves the entire county.
Photo by Alex Tekip

By Alex Tekip
Clinton Chronicle staff reporter

ST JOHNS—A short drive north on U.S 127 the Lansing Area will reveal a very different world: speed limits are higher, farmland is common, and fixed-route transit systems are not.

However, one will see quite a few Blue Buses on the road.

They are part of Clinton County’s demand-response transit system.

Dawn Benson, General Manager of Clinton Transit, said the goal of the demand-response system, which the Blue Buses use to make transportation as efficient as possible.

“We’re a demand-response system. We do not have any regular times, regular routes,” she said. “Demand-response means someone calls and asks for a trip and we work it into a bus route, [we] try to be as efficient as possible, serving every address in Clinton County at least six times a day.”

Benson said the personalized services of the Clinton Transit system allow for the Blue Bus to pick residents up directly from their homes.

“We go to the residents,” she said. “So you want a pick up at your home, and your home happens to be an Olid, we will make a trip to your home, pick you up at that door and take you to where you would like to go.”

Zachary Neal, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University, said population demographics, particularly socioeconomic status, play a pivotal role in determining the type of transportation a city or region uses.

“When you have a population that’s fairly high SES [socioeconomic status], has a fairly high amount of income, it means that residents are more likely to have their own cars,” he said. “And so the types of infrastructure that need to be provided are roads, freeways, you know that sort of thing.”

Neal said public transportation is needed more in areas where residents typically have a lower income.

“When you have a much lower SES population, the residents don’t have cars, the type of infrastructure you need is public transit to be able to get people you know, from home to work, home to school,” he said.

Benson said catering to individuals of lower socioeconomic status, as well as the elderly and disabled, is one of the primary goals of public transportation and is no different in rural areas than in the city.

“The city transit also gets primarily those that are seniors, elderly disabled, low income,” she said. “So that’s public transit’s primary goal is to provide similar services across the nation.”

Benson said Clinton Transit primarily provides services for seniors, and those who may not be able-bodied to drive a vehicle.

“We’re allowing seniors…were allowing disabled individuals to stay in their rural home, maybe the family farm, and still be able to get to their medical appointments, to be able to get their groceries, just basic life services,” she said.

Benson said Clinton Transit uses a demand-response system as a way to provide cost-effective transportation in rural areas where fixed-route transportation would not be efficient.

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CATA is a fixed-route transportation system that serves Ingham County, namely the greater Lansing/East Lansing area.
Photo by Alex Tekip

Capital Area Transportation Authority, or CATA, offers a similar service within Ingham County.

CATA Rural Services, or CRS, caters to outlying communities in the Lansing area, such as Mason and Williamston.

“CATA Rural Service is a curb-to-curb service with 24-hour advance reservation for travel in the outlying areas of Ingham County,” said Laurie Robison, Director of Marketing at CATA.

Debra Alexander, Assistant Executive Director at CATA, said the similarities between the Clinton Area Transit Service and CATA are mainly due to the size of the population they serve.

“[Clinton Transit] service is very similar to CATA Rural Service and is designed for smaller communities with less population density,” she said.

She said there is only a select group of public transit systems that actually use fixed routes.

I believe there are 78 transits in the state of Michigan… other than those located in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint, Lansing, Jackson, Grand Rapids, the rest of us are all rural and have very few fixed routes.,” she said. “Because we don’t have a population to support the fixed routes.”

Neal said a city’s transportation system and the state of its economy work hand in hand.

“The conventional viewpoint is that cities economies grow, and as they grow, more people come to the city, you know, looking for jobs, migrating, looking for opportunity, and so the transportation to the city increases,” he said.

However, Neal said the conventional viewpoint is starting to shift.

“What researchers are starting to find is that it actually happens in the reverse direction,” he said. “First, cities need to have good transportation systems, and because they have good transportation systems, they tend to grow economically, they tend to get additional jobs, new companies, that sort of thing.”

Neal said this new research is indicative of just how much influence transportation can have on a city’s economy.

“What [this research] is suggesting is for cities to be economically healthy, they need to have good transportation systems,” he said. “They need to be easy to get to, easy to get from, well-connected to other places.”

Benson said although St. Johns and its surrounding cities are just a short drive from the Lansing area, Clinton Area Transit does not compete with CATA.

“Separate counties, separate systems,” she said. “ [CATA] was granted by the state legislature the permission to serve all of Clinton, Ingham and Eaton Counties, but they obviously focus on Ingham County, which is their home base… [Clinton Transit] is only in Clinton County.”

Benson said although a merger with CATA is unlikely, the Clinton Transit  has been making small improvements in hopes of branching out of their current facility.

“We are currently renting a facility that’s over 85 years old, and I have buses parked outdoors in multiple spots, so were hoping to build our own facility…within the vicinity of our office [in St. Johns],” she said.

Neal said the economic development of smaller, rural cities such as St. Johns depends on whether or not they are connected to larger areas by some means of transit, namely highways and roads.

“For smaller towns, they don’t have the resources, the infrastructure to be able to provide their own transportation,” he said. “But they can link into transportation in other big cities in the area.”

Neal said that St. Johns’ connection to the Lansing metropolitan area is a contributing factor to the city’s economic success.

“When it comes to smaller cities, it boils down to whether they’re connected to larger cities in the area…if they have access to where the potential for economic growth is,” he said. “So St Johns for instance, not that far from the Lansing metropolitan area, and relatively easy access down [U.S.] 127, …and relatively easy access to Capitol Airport.”

Benson said Clinton Transit is able to work effectively in a rural environment by catering to the needs of those who do not want to leave the city where they live.

“Folks who live in a rural area live here because they want to or they always have,” she said.

Benson said one of the needs of those residing in the Clinton County area is independence, as most households have at least one car, compared to in the city where not everyone will have their own vehicle.

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A need for independent transportation in rural communities such as St. Johns is reflected investment in road infrastructure and by the number of residents who drive cars.
Photo by Alex Tekip

Benson said the need for independence also contributes to the success of a demand-response transit system in Clinton County.

“[The biggest reason people will call the Blue Bus instead of getting interested in mass transit is] probably independence. Just plain ‘I wanna do my thing at my time and not be delayed,’” she said.

Neal said the level of demand for public transportation in St. Johns is also an important factor to consider, comparing the Blue Bus system to CATA.

“If a student called up CATA every time they wanted a bus, you know, CATA’s phone lines would be plugged and nobody would ever get where they needed to go,” he said. “So it really has to do with the amount of demand, and that’s a strong way that many smaller towns deal with low demand but still wanting to provide some kind of public transit infrastructure is these on-demand services like St. Johns is using.”

However, Neal also said there are many benefits to public transportation, even in areas of low demand.

“There’s a lot of value in public transportation and a lot of value in building neighborhoods that are walkable, building schools and shopping that you can get to on food or by bus,” he said. “It’s healthier, it’s better for the environment, its often much less expensive.”

Alexander said she shares Neal’s sentiment.

“Public transportation is a critical component to any community of any size, offering affordable mobility services to those who have no other viable means of transportation, as well as those who have access to other modes of transportation but choose CATA as a cost-efficient and convenient option, she said. “Public transportation is also crucial to a community’s sustainability efforts, helping to reduce air pollution and congestion.”

Neal said he believes there is still some worth to mass transit despite a growing independence in transportation in neighborhoods such as St. Johns and the surrounding area.

“Even if we have neighborhoods where everyone does have a car, I don’t think that means we should kill the bus system, eliminate the subway,” he said. “There’s still some value in that.”

Alexander said the transportation an individual chooses to use heavily depends on his or her lifestyle.

“The reason people make the transportation choices they do totally depends on their life situations,” she said. “Some people are not comfortable in larger cities, and work and live in the rural area. There are many, many other reasons. It is a choice people make based on their life situation matched with the options they have available.”

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