Transportation, a lifeline between people and things they need to survive, is often scarce where it is needed most. In North-Central Montana, an area known as the Hi-Line, public transportation is almost non-existent, cutting off those without private transportation from their communities.
In August 2009, Opportunity Link, Inc., a nonprofit focused on reducing poverty and promoting economic development, founded the North Central Montana Transit (NCMT) as an affordable public bus system to help communities achieve independence, prosperity and a better way of life.
The four counties and two Indian reservations covered by NCMT’s bus lines have population densities as low as 1.5 people per square mile. In these rural areas, traveling distances of 100 miles to get to work, school, or town centers is not unusual.
Unemployment and poverty are high in these communities, and many people cannot afford to own and maintain a car.
“Public transit systems are just as essential in rural areas. The public perception of rural communities as idyllic places where hearty children spend lots of time outdoors can be an obstacle to addressing overweight and obesity in rural areas.” — Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Distance is the biggest barrier to health in rural communities. Access to playgrounds, parks and fitness centers is limited for children who lack transportation. Transportation methods that double as exercise, such as walking and biking to school, are impractical at great distances, and rural roads often lack adequate shoulder space or safe sidewalks for pedestrians.
Working with local stakeholders such as Montana State University Northern and local Boys and Girls Clubs, Opportunity Link developed five intercity bus routes that cover more than 600 miles each day. Twice a week, the bus also travels to Great Falls, the only urban community in the area. Great Falls has larger medical, retail and educational facilities than any surrounding area, but for many, the 114-mile trip from Havre would not be possible without public transportation.
Now in its fifth year, NCMT continues to expand. In their pilot year, the program gave more than 18,000 rides, quadrupling their initial expectation of 4,000 rides. Their rapid growth carried through 2012, when they gave 21,591 rides, covered 167,000 miles and established a partnership with local Boys and Girls Clubs. The organization engages their community by posting photos and updates to their Facebook page and creating a short video series that highlights the people, connections and features of the bus system.
How has your community addressed transportation issues? Has transportation been a barrier to access in your area? Share your stories and strategies on the Commons so that we can collaborate, learn, and make change together.