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Minivan with the "RAMP" logo
One of RAMP’s three vans. Image Credit: Waynesburg University

Pilot Transportation Program Improves Rural Access and Mobility

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Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing

For the 15% of the U.S. population living in rural areas, simple but essential trips like commuting to work, shopping for groceries or accessing health care have become more challenging and expensive in the past few decades. Hindered by sparse infrastructure and limited public transit options, rural populations rely heavily on single-purpose trips in personal vehicles, straining both wallets and energy reserves. Planned and unplanned traffic incidents also impact these trips substantially; due to limited route choices and possible destinations, travel time can increase exponentially or even make the trip unattainable completely.

Because these factors make travel more physically and financially burdensome, fundamental resources and services, like jobs, food and health care, are inherently more inaccessible to rural populations. The residents of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Greene County know these struggles well; the region is a microcosm of the mobility plight facing rural America and an ideal test site for Carnegie Mellon’s rural access mobility platform (RAMP)(opens in new window) initiative.

In 2020, the United States Department of Energy funded a team of researchers(opens in new window) led by Sean Qian(opens in new window) and the Mobility Data Analytics Center(opens in new window) at Carnegie Mellon University studying ways to enhance mobility in rural areas. Four years and several models later, the RAMP pilot-program launched its real-world operation in Greene County to offer residents energy-efficient, affordable and convenient transportation options, with the goal of replicating it across the country.

“Our team worked closely with members of the Greene County community, specifically Greene County residents, nonprofits, commissioners’ offices, and faculty and students at Waynesburg University (WU). We began by conducting surveys and focus groups to identify community needs and the shortcomings of existing transportation options,” said Qian, professor of civil and environmental engineering(opens in new window). “For example, we learned WU students had challenges shopping in the nearby department store, and local residents missed doctor’s appointments due to delay of paratransit. So, we developed RAMP, an on-demand service based on the population's most desired destinations, and it takes real-time trip requests throughout the county.”

Available Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., RAMP operates three vehicles: one on a regular fixed route between two popular destinations and two offering on-demand services throughout the county, with extended service to Washington, Pennsylvania, and Morgantown, West Virginia. Because some Greene County residents don’t have internet or cell phone service, users can request services through Wi-Fi on a computer or a landline and get matched with an on-demand driver to take them to their destination.

These day-to-day operations are managed by nonprofit collaborator Blueprints(opens in new window), in addition to the coordination of local stakeholders with WU.

The program also monitors traffic conditions in real-time by integrating existing data sources like the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s road condition reporting system and Waze to inform the trip information and optimize mobility.

“We are thrilled to be collaborating with our partners and using our research to address rural citizens’ mobility needs for enhanced quality of life, while taking into account energy efficiency and sustainability,” said Karen Lightman(opens in new window), executive director of Safety21(opens in new window), the U.S. DOT National University Transportation Center for Safety. “We’ve taken the lessons and learnings from the RAMP project to spin out a more ambitious multimodal project throughout Appalachia. With funding we received from the Appalachian Regional Commission, we will further define how to scale this across other rural communities struggling with similar mobility issues to Greene County.”

The research team will collect user data on an ongoing basis throughout the pilot period to ensure the system continues to accomplish what the researchers intended: providing a rural community with effective, affordable, accessible and sustainable transportation.

“Incorporating travel demand characteristics and multisource data into rural mobility service design has never been done before and, based on our pilot in Greene County, has enormous potential,” said Qian. “Our team plans to continue developing the technology and replicate this system in rural regions across the county.”

Sean Qian

Sean Qian

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