Iowa has a rich tradition of planning and maintaining transportation infrastructure: In 1868, the horse-drawn trolleys of the Dubuque Street Railway became only the second public transportation system west of the Mississippi. Two decades later, Des Moines became the second city in the nation to have electric rail service running along its streets. Yet, prior to 1975, there was no true regional public transit system to handle the transportation needs of all Iowans – especially those living in rural areas. Rose Lee became one of the first to change that.
In 1975, the Iowa legislature authorized the creation of the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) and the funding of regional transportation projects that would allow its citizens greater access to public transportation. Developing a connected transportation system was critical for a state dotted with small towns and rural farmland.
That same year, Lee, who was service coordinator of the Northwest Aging Association of Spencer, Iowa, successfully developed a system to handle the transportation needs of senior citizens living in the nine-county northwest region of the state. Soon afterward, Iowa DOT took notice and approached Lee about expanding her program to incorporate the transportation needs of all citizens living in the region – from school children and handicapped persons to factory workers and tourist – in addition to the elderly. Thus, RIDES was born.
RIDES was one the first public transportation systems in the state, which – along with three or four others that sprung up at the time – became the core of Iowa’s initial regional transit system. They would eventually number 19 urban and 16 regional systems, providing more than 22 million rides annually.
“We had a number of challenges even before we started out,” said Lee. “When I was with the Northwest Aging Association, we were using old school buses and station wagons – which were not handicap accessible – to get seniors around. When we received the mandate to expand our program in what would eventually become RIDES, the state was able to provide us with extra money for six plain-Jane minivans; however, there was only enough money to equip two with wheelchair lifts to accommodate the handicapped.”
In addition, coordination within the nine-county region became a major logistical issue. After all, RIDES is essentially a centralized service that covers the myriad transportation needs of all Iowans within the region, from transporting children to school and back to providing door-to-door service for an elderly person in need of weekly dialysis. In other words, there are no individual transportation systems for the region’s diverse educational, human, social and healthcare services. They all utilize one, coordinated system – RIDES.
“All that requires a great deal of careful planning,” said Lee. “In the end, however, a coordinated system reduces the duplication of transportation services, lowers cost and opens up our transportation system to more people. Everyone benefits!”
RIDES has come a long way since its inception when it used just six minivans to transport 20 people each day. Today, its fleet of 74 handicap-accessible vehicles transports more than 1,500 people daily, covering approximately 5,600 square miles.