One of the Midwest's largest rural public transit systems is helping Isabella County get around town

Last year, Americans took 10.1 billion trips on public transportation, and while many people think riding the bus is just a "big city thing," Isabella County’s public transportation system, iRide, is helping residents get from place to place in a big way. Providing service to around 600,000 riders every year, it’s one of the largest rural transit systems in the Midwest.


“Our goal is to provide very affordable public transit, seven days a week, 359 days a year,” says Kaylie Monroe, iRide’s Outreach Coordinator.


“Transportation is the second highest cost of living. For those who can’t afford their own individual transportation, we are how they get to work, to school, to the doctor, the store, or the bank. We service every single school in Isabella County, including daycares. People who are 80 years old and up ride for free, and there are people confined to wheelchairs who only get out of their house once a month who call us simply to go for a ride, and that’s fantastic.”


But affordable transportation is nothing if it can’t be used by the people who need it the most, so one of iRide’s goals is to make riding a bus accessible and convenient, especially since 33% of their riders are senior or disabled. Rather than forcing all riders to meet at bus stops at scheduled times, they provide curb-to-curb service.


“What that means is that we pick you up where you’re at and take you right to where you’re going. We do have a few bus shelters that are private property to avoid parking issues, but for the most part it’s curb-to-curb. Because many of our riders are senior or disabled individuals, we can’t just say 'walk to a bus stop.' That’s not what we’re here for. You’re going to see our drivers out of their buses loading groceries because they care, and they want to get up out of their seats and help.”

iRide dispatches buses curb-to-curb based on a four tier priority system


The popularity of this unique curb-to-curb service means the system used to keep their 45 vehicles and 76 bus drivers on time needs to be unique, too. So iRide runs on a priority-based system.


“People that have daily reserved rides or reocurring calls - these might be people going to and from work or class - they can call us with their schedules and we will put them into our system as a permanent call. They’re a top priority," explains Monroe.


"The second priority are people who call 24 hours in advance. I really recommend this for people who have appointments. Following this in priority are people who call two hours in advance - they just got called into work or need to go to the doctor, but it’s not an emergency. Our final priority is 'on-demand,' which is where people call and tell us that they’re ready to roll.”


Because the priority system can be unfamiliar to new riders, iRide calls all new passengers to explain the system, as well as giving them an opportunity to ask any questions. “Because we’re a service industry and a nonprofit, it’s in everyone’s best interests that they understand the system to get the most out of it,” Monroe says. “We don’t want anybody that needs the service to not know about it or to not use it because they don’t understand how.”


Another service iRide offers is the commuter shuttle. Through funding provided by iRide’s partners, the routes that are yellow to yellow on the iRides map are fare free - the ride has already been paid for.


“We partner with CMU and then various apartment complexes so kids have rides to and from campus as well as all around campus," explains Monroe, "There are a few rides upon request that are fared, but no more than two dollars a ride.”

A mechanic works on one of the 45 vehicles in iRide's fleet


Originally called VanTran and then the Isabella County Transportation Commission, iRide has been serving Isabella County since 1973.


Part of that history has been a constant desire to find ways to streamline and improve service. Recently, feedback sheets were posted in all of iRide’s buses, asking riders whether they thought the buses were clean and if the service met their expectations.


“The results have been outstandingly positive,” says Monroe. “We’ve had 189 responses so far - 97% have said that the buses were clean, and 89% have said that their expectations were met. The positive feedback has been so great because our drivers work very hard to make sure our riders needs are met.”


Monroe says she hopes to see more riders begin to use the service in the future, and they'll continue to collect rider feedback to make the service better each year.


“We help a lot of people every day for work, school, appointments, grocery stores, banks - you name it, we take people there, and we would love to see our ridership increase, as well as find new ways to improve the service.”

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