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For Rural Teens, No Ride Means Missed Chances

Vision transit team, bus systems, educators seek new routes to student success

December 15, 2010 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Glenn Puit/MLUI
  Jesse Kurtz has no car, so getting to school from his backwoods home is difficult, and often isolates him from schoolmates and family.

Part Five of a series

Jesse Kurtz knows what it feels like to be stranded.

The 17-year-old lives with his dad in a truly rural outpost of Northern Michigan, in Manistee County—miles away from the nearest town, Thompsonville.

“I’m out in the middle of nowhere,” the teen says.

With no car and no easy access to neighboring Benzie County’s public bus system, the young man depends completely on others while attending his senior year at the county’s alternative high school. His dad, a single parent, works constantly, driving to and from his painting and construction job in Elk Rapids.

Dad regularly shuttles Jesse for school and work, but because the older Kurtz leaves around 6 a.m., their schedules don’t always coincide. That means Jesse often finds himself either sitting home alone, trying to bum rides from friends, or staying overnight at their homes for a ride the next morning.

He doesn’t like the situation.

“I’m not really at home much and neither is my family, so when I’m at home, I’m usually alone,” Kurtz says. 

The young man’s story highlights one of the biggest obstacles that struggling families in rural northern Michigan face as they try to better their prospects: getting to jobs, schools and other places crucial to their future quickly, dependably, and affordably.

Help, however, may be on the way, thanks to The Grand Vision, the two-year, citizen-based project that came up with a widely supported, 50-year development path for the six-county Grand Traverse region. That work could help Jesse and his hard-pressed parents, and thousands of other families facing the same predicament.

The Vision, which reflects the thoughts of 15,000 residents in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford Counties, calls for making public transit more compatible with daily commuters who already have good cars and jobs, as well as with families facing severe transportation problems.

This fall, many community organizations formed the Grand Vision Transportation Network to improve transportation options, including public bus systems in Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Wexford and Kalkaska Counties. The Network enjoys a favorable environment: 80 percent of those responding to a regional, scientific survey said they wanted more and better public transportation.

Meanwhile, educators, public transportation advocates, and bus agency officials say a mix of awareness, lower fares for students, better coordination of different bus systems, and using those systems in league with schools could make a big difference.

In the Kurtzes’ case, such changes could free up dad from some of his chauffer duties and expenses, make life a easier and more predictable for Jesse, drastically reduce his depressing isolation, and help him get involved in after-school activities.

A Widespread Problem
Kim Pontius, director of the Traverse Area Association of Realtors, said many families have the same problem as the Kurtzes. If they cannot pay the higher rents that come with living in town centers, near jobs, schools, and services, they try to save by moving to remote, rural spots where rates are lower but jobs and services are hard to find.

The rent may be cheap, Mr. Pontius notes, but operating a car is expensive, especially an old one. Families in the region spend, on average, more than $11,000 annually on transportation costs. They also spend more time in their cars—the average Grand Traverse commute is now around 25 miles, according to the U.S. Census. That’s comparable to commutes in Michigan’s big cities, and means parents spend a lot of time away from their children just getting to work.

The lack of good rural transportation also forces kids to miss out on job, sports, and extracurriculars, and can even endanger them, said Sarah Cook, an after-school site coordinator at Benzie Central School. She works for SEEDS, a local non-profit specializing in environmental education.

“A lot of our kids’ parents have at least one unemployed parent and some of them have two,” said Ms. Cook. “It’s a big strain on these kids, just getting them to school, getting lunches, getting clothes and focusing on school work versus how their parents are going to make rent payments.

“For a lot of our kids, their parents don’t have reliable transportation, so their parents can’t come pick them up from school and they don’t always have gas money,” she said. “Some of them actually choose to walk home, which presents a lot of problems because they live really spread out. We’ve had a couple of kids who’ve stayed for the after school programs and they didn’t know they could take the bus home. They were just going to walk home. One of them lived eight miles away and was planning on walking home at 6 p.m.”

So families that can’t afford a car, or enough cars, must depend on the kindness of friends or, perhaps, service from the local bus system—in Jesse’s case, the Benzie Bus. Yet, as well run and popular as Benzie Bus is, it can’t take Jesse across the county line, leaving rural families looking for other solutions.

Car-free Planning
There are steps some young people could take to cut down on their transportation isolation.

Several school workers, including Ms. Cook, said that that getting teens to ride public transit is largely a matter of awareness. If kids better understood Benzie’s three-year-old transit service, she said, they would use it more. That would help them feel more plugged into what their peers are doing, a crucial factor for educational and social success.

Ms. Cook said that when SEEDS holds “bus awareness” classes and arranges for students to ride the public bus home from after-school activities, they immediately start using the buses more on their own.

“I think most of the kids we have now in the after-school program are using (the public bus) because they’ve gotten used to it and are comfortable,” she said.

Changing mobility habits is tricky, though. Most of northern Michigan’s bus systems require riders to reserve a seat by phone a day ahead. Young people just don’t like doing that, so many just skip the idea.

“That’s the biggest challenge for youth, planning ahead,” said Susan Miller, director of Benzie Bus, in Benzie County. “Our youth are in an instant world, everything there, when they want it. They have a difficult time recognizing scheduling and the need for preparation. That’s why accessibility in many cases is not an option: They aren’t in that mode of thinking.”

But, even when riders, young or old, make and use reservations, service can be problematic. Almost without exception, it is dial-a-ride, meaning riders get picked up at their door. That sounds convenient, but it renders meandering, inefficient routes that take inordinate amounts of time to get to a destination.

That, too, discourages public transit use. Transit experts recommend fixed routes through community centers, perhaps complimented by feeder bus systems that pick up kids like Jesse and get them to the fixed route bus line.

A Missed Bargain
Jesse, however, continues to see a car, and not the public bus, as his best shot. He doesn’t think about using public transit because, he says, it is simply inaccessible to him. The public bus stop is six miles away, on the other side of the Benzie-Manistee county line, in Thompsonville.

So he and his dad rely on cars. They recently dumped $3,000 into an old one for the young man, but the vehicle refused to run.

Given the three-dollar cost of a one-way Benzie Bus ticket, that money could have bought Jesse 500 full-price round trips—more than two years worth of rides, with no additional charge for gas, maintenance, and insurance.

But the idea is unworkable as long as he can’t get to the bus stop. The teen said he doesn’t feel safe riding a bike six miles to Thomposonville on rural roads, which do not have shoulders.

“It’s definitely not walking distance,” he said.

And, he adds, even if he could get to Thompsonville, he still couldn’t afford $6 a day for a round-trip ticket.

Ms. Cook agrees that cost is a problem for the students she sees, and that providing bus passes through school programs like SEEDS helps. Ms. Miller said the Benzie Bus is willing to consider reduced-fare bus passes for kids. Currently, the $6 round-trip cost is levied on everyone except seniors, children, and people with disabilities.

All Together Now
One key low-cost strategy for making the public transit improvements that The Grand Vision calls for is better coordination of different counties’ bus services. That would not help Jesse, but it might help his dad, who commutes across Benzie, deep into Grand Traverse County. So the Grand Vision Transit Network is encouraging the region’s five different bus systems to align their “fixed route” buses.

And some public transit advocates also want the network to look more closely at another kind of “inter-system” coordination that could help students like Jesse.

The idea is relatively new; Suttons Bay School District, in Leelanau County, just north of Benzie, is trying it out this year. The district eliminated its traditional school bus program and is relying on the Bay Area Transportation Authority, the transit system that serves both Leelanau and Grand Traverse Counties, to get kids to and from school.

The move will cut the district’s annual transportation costs by approximately $600,000. Some of that money will buy BATA passes for students headed to the Suttons Bay schools. That kind of service and cost consideration could make life much easier and mobility much more affordable for teens like Jesse Kurts.

BATA Executive Director Tom Menzel said he believes getting kids into public transit through school-based programs will eventually help break down teenagers’ “car culture” mentality. He said the Grand Vision can support the community movement to educate youth about public transit.

“It requires a paradigm shift in our thinking, but it’s something that, quite frankly, is going to have to take place,” Mr. Menzel said.

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four of MLUI’s series Families on the Edge: Designing Communities that Work.

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