By Molly Moore
It’s easy to take for granted the ability to get from home to work or to an important medical appointment. But transportation options aren’t always available, and car trouble — and the worries that come with not having a car — can be a barrier for many.
The struggle to gain access to transportation affects both rural and urban communities in the region. Tom Sanchez, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, notes that the core issues are starkly different — dense populations in cities lead to congestion, while sparsely populated rural communities struggle with a lack of transit options. But in both situations, insufficient transportation can make it harder to access healthcare or travel to work or school.
In urban areas, public transportation systems typically combat this by providing scheduled shuttle routes. The Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, for instance, features a fleet of emission-free electric buses with regular routes, special van service for passengers with disabilities, and will soon manage 30 bike rental stations.
But in rural areas, demand-response services, where drivers respond to individual needs, are more common. Mitchell Elliot serves as transit director for Mountain Empire Older Citizens, an area agency on aging that serves three southwest Virginia counties and the town of Norton.
The agency’s 50 buses, which hold 12 to 19 riders each, serve roughly 95,000 people across 4,400 square miles of rugged terrain. The transit system began in the ‘80s, and Elliott says ridership demand is continually increasing.
“It is sometimes a challenge to get people where they need to be,” says Elliot. “We have some people that we transport to the dialysis center and of course that’s pretty much a matter of life and death.” Mountain Empire Older Citizens requests a minimum 24-hour advance call, and during tough winters, the agency uses four-wheel drive vehicles to reach high-priority passengers.
Area residents rely on the public system, he says, especially because of a lack of taxis and other private options in the MEOC service territory.
Elliot estimates that 60 percent of the system’s riders are elderly, and many use the bus system to travel to senior centers and the agency’s PACE Center, which provides health and social services for older citizens. Other riders include low-income families and community college students,and individuals with physical limitations who rely on the system’s disability-accessible vehicles.
With limited public funding available, success depends on collaboration with other partners and between departments. Transportation is just one of the services MEOC provides — the agency’s endeavors range from home-delivered meals to running a cancer treatment center and senior care facility.
Elliot proudly points out that the agency’s drivers are frequent champions at the annual Virginia State Bus Roadeo competition. “One of the things that makes people from the Appalachian area unique is that no matter what challenge we have, we seem to be able to do the very best we can with it,” he says. “Our area does more with little than maybe any area around.”
Many local nonprofit agencies, such as Aid to Distressed Families of Appalachian Counties in Oak Ridge, Tenn., provide car repair assistance as part of their efforts to fight poverty. In some counties, organizations provide veterans with door-to-door transit to pick up essentials or visit far-flung VA hospitals, and assist with funds for auto repair. Some programs specifically address the connection between transportation and healthcare — in North Carolina’s Watauga and Avery counties, the Latino Health Program provides bilingual health assistance, including transportation to medical appointments, for the local Latino population. And in central Appalachia, a grassroots network helps the families of people incarcerated in the region visit their loved ones in prison.
Transportation is also a high-priority need for survivors of domestic abuse, according to Deanna Stoker of A Safe Home for Everyone, a program of Ashe County Partnership for Children. “The majority of the population and most of our clients do not have a reliable form of transportation,” she says.
While transportation issues can be troublesome for the general population, “when you add that extra layer of intimate partner violence, it could be a survivor seeing that as a reason for why it may be difficult to leave and transition to living on their own,” Stoker says, especially because they might be relying on transportation from a person who is abusing them.
The federal funds the organization receives under the Victims Of Crime Act can’t be used for gas cards, so Stoker’s team relies on private charity and local funders to help clients with transportation costs.
“We’re very lucky that people are invested in taking care of each other,” Stoker says, describing how churches also assist with transportation for those in need. “We’ve had to figure out how to do it here with each other.”