ALLEGANY COUNTY, N.Y. — Wellsville, New York, doesn’t have much of a rush hour.
A sleepy Main Street in Allegany County’s biggest town – home to about 7,000 people – spans barely five blocks along the Genesee River, running from a diner that offers a Friday fish fry on one end to a family law office on the other. Streetside parking spots remain open and car horns quiet.
Nearly 10 percent of households in Allegany County – one of New York state’s poorest counties and one of the the Mid-Atlantic region’s most rural – do not own a car, compared with the national median of about 6 percent, according to a U.S. News analysis of U.S. Census data. In Wellsville, sidewalks disappear shortly outside of downtown, adding to the difficulties of getting around the area.
But like anywhere, Wellsville residents still have errands to run, places to be and things to do. And perhaps the most common sight in the old oil town is a 12-seat shuttle bus with a green stripe, steadily making its way across streets dotted with churches and worn Victorian homes.
These ACCESS Allegany buses compose a public transportation system managed by a rural health development network, Ardent Solutions, in partnership with the local government.
Every weekday, with just a handful of exceptions for federal holidays, the ACCESS Allegany public bus system runs six routes featuring dozens of total stops, traversing the county and beyond to help people get to their doctor’s appointments, jobs and social events safely and on time.
More than 300 miles east, New York City’s subway system serves nearly 6 million people each day across more than 600 miles of tracks. The ACCESS Allegany system covers about 2,000 miles each day and reaches just a fraction of that ridership, but it’s no less integral to the vitality of those it serves.
In fact, according to a U.S. News analysis of nearly 3,000 U.S. communities across 80 health-related metrics, Allegany County is healthier than New York City’s Queens, Bronx and Kingscounties. And the bus system helps it perform fairly well in an area in which other rural communities can struggle.
Along with food and nutrition, public safety and more, infrastructure – including measures of commute times and vehicle access – is one of 10 broad categories used by U.S. News to determine America’s 500 Healthiest Communities. And while Allegany County did not crack the top 500 overall, it ranks 30th among rural, up-and-coming communities, and landed on the U.S. News Healthiest Communities Honor Roll as a top regional performer, scoring above the national average in the infrastructure category, as well as in public safety and population health.
The benefits of public transportation to public health can include increased physical activity and reducing the health hazards of pollution, and systems built with wellness in mind are lauded by experts in the health field.
But much of the importance of transportation to health, particularly in rural areas, comes down to access.
“It’s more than getting from one place to another,” says Dr. Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. “Transportation introduces paths to things like income, education and the opportunities that shape health.”
Funded largely through state grants, the ACCESS Allegany bus system is accounted for in the county’s transportation budget, and it’s not the first or only public bus system serving a rural area.
But placing such a system under the purview of a health-focused organization about a decade ago is what helped ACCESS Allegany become exceptional, local leaders say.
The idea stemmed from a grass-roots movement to better coordinate efforts to serve the community through transportation, with improving access to health services among the goals. Dozens of community leaders gathered to discuss the resources available to them and collect feedback from their neighbors about what was working and what wasn’t, says Larry Kaminski, mobility management planner at Ardent Solutions and day-to-day manager of the ACCESS Allegany bus system.
After about a year of discussion and analysis, a more holistic and synergistic view of what transportation could mean to community wellness emerged. Previously managed by a national transportation contractor, the bus system was moved to the locally based, health-minded company that would become Ardent Solutions, allowing Allegany County to rethink what such a system could be for a rural community and how it could promote wellness. Funding was streamlined, and routes were redesigned to get people to and from places that factored into their quality of life more efficiently.
“I call it the perfect storm,” says Kaminski, who has a background in transportation management. “In a rural area, you have to collaborate. Here, it’s just a way of life.”
Trips on the ACCESS buses cost riders $1, or less for seniors and others in special circumstances. The state transportation department reimburses Allegany County at a rate of about 41 cents per passenger and 69 cents per mile traveled, money that goes directly back into the local budget.
Ardent employees who monitor the ACCESS Allegany Call Center, answering questions about schedules and planning modifications for those who can’t make it to a scheduled stop, say most of the calls they receive are from people using the bus system to get to medical appointments.
“Half of the people who live in this area wouldn’t survive without the bus,” says Becky Nelson, the system’s mobility management assistant. “They’re very appreciative. And after a while, you get to know their voices. They feel like family.”
Steve Williams is one of those people. A retired Army veteran, Williams has been riding ACCESS buses multiple times a week for four years, often making the trip from his home in Steuben County to the Veterans Affairs clinic in the Wellsville area. It’s a 70-mile trip that he says would force him to hitchhike otherwise.
“At my age, regular checkups are vital, and I found the ACCESS bus system out of need,” he says. “It all started with not having a vehicle and needing to get somewhere.”
ACCESS buses stop by the VA clinic multiple times each day, along with Jones Memorial Hospitalin Wellsville and Olean General Hospital in nearby Cattaraugus County. But the system’s scope is broader than that.
Within a half-hour on a route from Wellsville north to Belmont, stops are made that allow easy access to food stores, a YMCA, a walking trail along the river and multiple municipal buildings, including a courthouse.
On a Wednesday in early March, the 5:11 p.m. bus on that route felt like a small community of its own. Passengers – including some carrying grocery bags, in workout gear and in corporate attire – greeted each other and the driver as they boarded, catching up on family members and neighbors with their fellow riders during an hourlong trip.
Kaminski says he’s had to work hard to fight the stigma that the bus system is only for people living in extreme poverty or with mental disabilities. He coordinates with local clubs and organizations to be sure events – such as chapter meetings of the local Lions Club and a workshop on balance at the local YMCA – are scheduled for times that coordinate with ACCESS bus schedules, hoping to broaden perspectives and ensure people are able to attend that otherwise couldn’t.
It seems to be working. Nearly everyone that interacts with the ACCESS buses references a sense of family tied to the system.
Sometimes, Williams will board the bus and simply see where he ends up, getting to know new places and people who become part of the “bus family” along the way. He looks for a seat in the middle by a window with an unobstructed view, carefully planning his day’s schedule around the buses.
“When you start, you’re a stranger on the bus,” he says. “But the bus family kind of grows on you, and if you want to participate in Allegany County, in the bus family or otherwise, the opportunity is always there.”