Out in Franklin or Berkshire counties, on the wide-open roads of rural Massachusetts, you probably picture cars, pickup trucks, and more cars. Just not your traditional city bus.
Figuring out how to run mass transit over large, sparsely populated areas has long been a challenge. But state and local officials, and some transit activists, are trying to get the issue more attention.
Improving transit in rural areas is one of the many recommendations in a sweeping report about transportation in Massachusetts, submitted to Governor Charlie Baker just before the holidays. But the report noted the difficulty of the task.
“Rural Massachusetts is served minimally, or not at all, by any passenger transportation mode other than personally owned vehicles. This disadvantages those people and families who suffer economic hardships, or have limitations on their ability to drive,” the report said. “Many rural towns have no or minimal bus service, train service, or access” to Uber and Lyft, “partly because low population density makes these options economically unattractive.”
The scarce population does not create much demand beyond the limited transit routes already operating, said Chris Dempsey, director of the nonprofit Transportation for Massachusetts.
“You have to make trade-offs in transit between frequency and service areas,” he said. “Buses come very infrequently and then it’s very unattractive to people, because if you miss a bus you have to wait another two hours for the next bus.”
While Massachusetts has 15 regional transit agencies, they have long said they need more money to meet even basic service levels. In mostly rural Franklin County, for example, activists have pushed to get bus service to extend into the weekend. The state Legislature last summer provided more funding for these bus services, though the regional agencies must now apply for the additional money and show how it will improve service.
In big cities like Boston, public transportation is seen as a key weapon in the eternal fight against traffic congestion.
But in rural areas, the more urgent need for transit is driven by demographics, especially a greater number of elderly people in need of a ride, said Pat Beaudry, a spokesman for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.
“We’re seeing the issue of rural transportation really rising to the top recently, which has a lot to do with the aging demographics of rural Massachusetts in conjunction with a decline in services and amenities offered in those communities necessitating further travels than before,” Beaudry said.
The state has also launched a study of potential rail service connecting Pittsfield to Springfield, Worcester, and Boston — linking the Berkshires to the state’s three biggest cities, though Baker administration officials have warned that there would be big infrastructure “challenges” to launching such a service.
The report to Baker, meanwhile, was low on specific solutions, though hinted at several. It said the state should install high-quality broadband Internet in underserved areas, which would make it easier for ride-hailing services such as Uber to “supplement” existing bus services.
It also suggested various providers of transportation — from the regional bus systems to local councils on aging — work together on regional transportation plans.
That’s similar to what the Boston-centric Metropolitan Area Planning Council is doing for the more sparsely populated communities northwest of Boston, such as Lincoln and Stow. The regional agency is asking companies to submit ideas for a “micro-transit” service, a sort of hybrid between ride-hailing and public transit that uses technology and smaller vehicles to create flexible routes that adjust based on passenger demand and pick-up requests. The MAPC is just considering the idea for now, but agency officials said such a service could draw from several existing operators.
“Council on aging shuttles aren’t always in use. Could they be used regionally for other uses?” said Marjorie Weinberger, the MAPC’s procurement director. “How can we expand upon on-demand transportation opportunities that are fully available in downtown urban districts but less available further away?”