Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Rural towns aren’t attractive to popular ride-hailing services, so a local company is launching its own in the western panhandle of Nebraska.
For those without cars in the western panhandle of Nebraska, grocery shopping or visiting the doctor can become an hours-long ordeal. It takes careful planning: You have to call a few days ahead to arrange for a bus to pick you up, for example. Said bus might arrive at your door an hour or so before your appointment, and drop off multiple passengers before finally arriving at your destination.
“After your appointment, you might need to wait half an hour to two hours before you can get home,” says Valerie Lefler, who heads Liberty, a company born out of the U.S. DOT Small Business Innovation Research program that seeks to improve transportation access in the region. “If your doctor is running late, you may need to make your own arrangements.”
“It’s a vast area with very little in between,” says Jonnie Kusek, transit director of Panhandle Trails, an intercity bus service that operates within the region. Here, public transportation is limited, and vital services for seniors, low-income families, and people with disabilities can be some 60 miles away from their homes in the countryside. “A lot of the challenge out here is trying to get people from our rural areas into a community that has public transportation,” says Kusek.
It’s not like in the city, where an Uber or Lyft ride can be called with just the tap of a smartphone—the ride-hailing infrastructure isn’t robust. Low population density and minimal profit for drivers mean the two companies have made only small pushes, if any, into rural America.
So Lefler and her team are launching their own 24-hour ride-hailing service—one that would complement the region’s public transit rather than be in competition with it. Liberty will partner with local transit agencies, picking up where buses leave off. Rides can be requested via a special app or through the company’s call center, for instance, when buses stop running overnight. When appointments run long, the service will guarantee that people can easily arrange a ride home. Lefler says they’ll try to keep the fare close to a dollar per mile, and drivers will get to keep 80 percent of the total charge.
The company is also working with medical communities so that hospitals and other health facilities can book rides on behalf of their patients. As part of its “caregiver platform,” the company will work with their clients to see if grants and other funds can cover the cost of the rides.
If someone requests a ride far in advance, the company may refer him or her to a cheaper or more efficient public transit alternative. Similarly, transit agencies like Panhandle Trails would refer their clients to Liberty if bus service isn’t available. “Public transportation is always going to be cheaper, but the benefit is they’ll have another resource,” says Lefler.
She and her team are currently waiting for approval from Nebraska Public Service Commission to operate in the state. They hope to launch the service with 25 drivers in Scottsbluff, Nebraska by Thanksgiving. They’ll also manage another 30 to 40 drivers in the coastal city of Corpus Christi, Texas.
Much like Uber’s model, Liberty’s drivers will be independent contractors. But Lefler says what differentiates the two companies is that there is an “altruistic vibe” among Liberty’s recruits. “We focus on working with schools, police departments, and the veteran administration [to hire drivers],” she says, adding that their market research shows that many drivers have already been providing rides to members of their churches or as volunteers with the local League of Human Dignity, a non-proft for people with disabilities.
“It’s all about community from start to finish,” Lefler adds. “That’s why we can make it work—we’re able to operate and function at the local level.”
The service won’t only be useful to people who need to run errands. Just as you might call an Uber to meet up with friends, Lefler hopes that people will use the service when they simply want to go out, but face barriers in doing so.
"When we did our pilot [test], there was a couple who had special needs and weren't able to drive, but they wanted go out,” she recalls. “They were willing to save up their money for that one month to get from their rural town to the Domino’s and back, and they were perfectly happy to do that because that's an improvement for their quality of life."