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Innovations in Rural Public Transportation: Data Standards Undergird Equity

Innovations in Rural Public Transportation

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In rural America, where distances to essential services and businesses tend to be greater than in urban areas, 3.7 million residents do not drive. These rural nondrivers are more likely than their driving neighbors to be female, nonwhite, and low income. Although public transportation service exists in 83 percent of US counties, many rural residents either are unaware of the service or find it inconvenient or difficult to navigate.

Many of the technological advances now ushering in a new travel paradigm in our cities can help rural transportation providers modernize their services. This report explains how transportation systems built with open and universal data standards can allow rural residents to experience more seamless travel on public transportation without reliance on a personal automobile.

Universal Mobility as a Service

Mobility as a service (MaaS) is an industry buzzword for a new travel paradigm whereby our private transportation (i.e., cars) is replaced by a system where we can meet our needs by summoning any variety of transportation services. And some heavy hitters are investing to make this happen. Uber and Lyft, for instance, now allow their customers to not only hail a car but rent a bike or scooter, and even compare those options with the cost and schedule of public transportation. Any number of public transportation agencies now define themselves not solely as bus and train operators but as mobility managers, helping customers navigate the increasing and diverse options to traverse their communities.

AARP coined the term universal mobility as a service (UMaaS) to emphasize the need to ensure that these new systems serve everyone, regardless of ability, age, income, or geography. How the US designs and implements these burgeoning seamless networks of transportation services will determine the cost of travel and how equitable our transportation system will be.

Data Standards: Wonky Sounding—but Foundational

Data standards are the underlying technology that enable seamless travel and support more equitable access. They offer a consistent way to present information about a trip to facilitate data sharing and coordination among providers, software companies, and funding agencies. Two primary types of data shared in a public transportation cloud-based environment drive service modernization—discovery data and transactional data.

Discovery data – The General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) is the underlying data standard for discovery data. Discovery data allow customers to find information about available travel options. The GTFS describes fixed routes with fixed schedules. That is a problem for rural America where nearly 90 percent of public transportation providers operate demand responsive transportation (DRT) service that does not follow a fixed route or schedule.

However, the GTFS-Flex extension allows customers to view their demand responsive transportation options.

Transactional data – Transactional data allow a transportation provider and a customer to make a transaction— be it to schedule a trip or to make a payment. For many rural services, it is not enough to inform customers about the service. For them to use the service, the trip needs to be scheduled, a vehicle and driver dispatched, a fare paid, a subsidy reflected, and a report made for the grant funder. This is what makes rural public  transportation more complex than urban fixed-route services.

The Transactional Data Specification (TDS), published by the Transportation Research Board in 2020, is a new data standard under development aimed at addressing the unique needs of demand-responsive transportation. The TDS allows the reservation systems of multiple community transportation providers to share customers and trip data among one another and, as appropriate, with brokerages. If one provider does not have a vehicle or driver available when a customer requests a ride, that provider can post that trip in the system, and another provider in the network can pick it up and provide the ride.

The system creates fewer trip denials, fewer empty seats, and lower costs per passenger. Other benefits include: less staff time dedicated to manually coordinating and scheduling trips; accurate billing-related data for trips; and better service for customers, such as same day rides, and more reliable and punctual transportation.

The GTFS and TDS are open and universal data standards, created through industry consensus and owned by no one and everyone. They hold the potential for a seamless, intermodal, interstate transportation system that is affordable and accessible to everyone.

Data in Practice

AARP funded the first proof of concept of the TDS, called Ridesheet, to address the needs of very small nonprofit transportation providers— those who operate fewer than a dozen vehicles. RideSheet puts scheduling in the cloud using the Google Suite of software (e.g., Google Sheets). And it integrates the TDS so that two or more providers can share trip data.  The Inner Court Family Center (ICFC) and Lake County Senior Association (LCSCA) in rural Lake County, Oregon, are the first two nonprofit transportation providers to use the tool. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is integrating both GTFS and the TDS into its Greater Minnesota Mobility as a Service platform.

Universal mobility as a service can and must be the future of transportation. MaaS is coming, but rural and intercity public transportation could be left behind unless we are proactive. Without open and universal data standards, such as the GTFS and TDS, rural residents may never discover the affordable service available in their community and could continue to contend with fragmented services. 


Suggested Citation:
Lynott, Jana. Innovations in Rural Public Transportation: Data Standards Undergird Equity. Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute, April 6, 2023.