Providing Mobility in Communities That Can’t Fill a Bus

Commentary, Transportation, Steve Lafleur

Many small communities struggle to provide adequate transportation to people with limited mobility and those who cannot afford to drive. Unlike major cities, public transit use in small communities outside the heart of metropolitan areas is rarely a lifestyle choice. Many elderly or disadvantaged residents of such communities have difficulty getting to church, visiting family, or even getting to the grocery store. In sparse communities that are built around automobile use, full scale public transit often isn’t sensible from either an environmental or an economic perspective. However, one suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, provides such communities with a solution: shared taxis.

Sun Prairie is a prosperous bedroom community just over 20 kilometers northeast of Madison, the state capital of Wisconsin. Like most American towns, Sun Prairie contains a charming historic Main Street surrounded by single dwelling houses and picket fences. New Urbanist ideas have gained some traction in the city, leading to more mixed-use development. What the city doesn’t have is a bus system. After all, the city has very low unemployment, and people who don’t intend to own a car tend not to move to such communities. But old age and economic misfortune can make some form of mass transit necessary in such communities.

Rather than running buses through the town or into Madison, Sun Prairie contracts with a local taxi company to move people around the town as well as to Madison. Riders can either call ahead to schedule a pickup, or use the “corner service” which picks up passengers from specified points to schools during the school year. Service starts at 6am or 7am and ends between 8pm-2:45am depending on the day. Fares range from $1.25 to $3.50 for in-town service, varying based on age and income, or $12 outside of the service window. The City solicits donations in order to subsidize low income fares and municipal grants help offset some of the costs. The taxi company also has a shuttle that provides four trips per day that connect to public transit in Madison for $3.50.

Sun Prairie’s shared taxi service sounds fairly mundane, but it is sufficiently innovative that Transport Canada profiled the service in a November 2011 Case Studies in Sustainable Transportation issue paper. According to that paper, shared taxi services can “offer additional transportation options for those living in rural or outlying areas that have no or limited public transportation.” The authors also noted that it can be an economical method of reducing congestion and c02 emissions.

So why hasn’t taxi sharing caught on in Canada? There are likely three reasons. First, even if municipal leaders in some communities have considered the idea they might be hesitant to be the first in the country to try it. Municipalities seek to emulate established best practices, but someone needs to be first. Few are likely aware of Sun Prairie’s program, or others like it around the world.

Second, as the Transport Canada report notes, taxi licensing can be a barrier. Since provincial and municipal governments cap the number of taxis in most communities, expanding licenses to create a shared taxi system could be complicated. That is just one of many reasons why we should re-think restrictive taxi licensing.

Third, municipal leaders are often tempted to lobby provincial governments for grants to purchase public transit vehicles. Since residents pay so much to the provincial and federal governments in taxes, many feel that they are owed a level of transit service comparable to larger communities where transit is actually viable – and provincial, federal, and municipal politicians love ribbon cuttings.

To understand the true value of shared taxis, consider the case of Airdrie, Alberta. It is a similar community to Sun Prairie, except that it has its own municipal bus service, which includes four articulated buses to transport residents to nearby Calgary. The cost of those buses likely exceeded $2 million and the annual operating cost is over $500,000. The service carries less than 400 people to Calgary per weekday, which amounts to a one-time subsidy exceeding $5000 per rider paid for by provincial and federal grants.  While Airdrie likely moves more people via transit than Sun Prairie does by shared taxi, it does so at a much higher cost per rider.

While building additional public transit is a sensible priority for many communities, it isn’t the right option in every case. For towns where public transit service isn’t practical, shared taxi services can be a sensible alternative.