Improving rural-urban commutes in central Pennsylvania

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: September 28, 2023

Rural Perry County is home to workers who routinely commute to Mechanicsburg, a 30 min. drive away. But public transit options are limited. Researchers at Penn State University collaborated with local government officials to design solutions.

Mechanicsburg, PA, a suburb of state capitol Harrisburg, is a high-density employment center. Home to medical services, information technology companies, state government offices, and a large school district, the borough’s average salary is higher than the state average. But homes in Mechanicsburg are also about 30% more expensive than in nearby Perry County.

Penn State’s Sustainable Communities Collaborative strives to connect students and researchers with real-world projects that help advance the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, which include investing in infrastructure, creating conditions that allow people to have high quality jobs, and expanding access to transportation. The Collaborative learned that commuters in Perry County regularly faced road congestion, and with a lack of public transit options, were more likely to use single occupancy vehicles. Penn State College of Engineering professor Vikash Gayah, working with fellow researchers Ilgin Guler and Andisheh Ranjbari partnered with the Perry County Commissioners and TriCounty Regional Planning Commission to identify affected communities and brainstorm solutions.

Identifying the problem

To fund the first phase of this work, the team won a competitive grant from the National Science Foundation’s Civic Innovation Challenge, which focuses on Communities and Mobility: Offering Better Mobility Options to Solve the Spatial Mismatch Between Housing Affordability and Jobs.

Gayah worked collaborated with community partners to recruit participants who completed surveys about their transit experiences. “We sent out targeted postcards, placed flyers within the community, and used road signs in high travel corridors,” explained Gayah. The team also offered 10 $50 Visa gift cards, posted information about the study on Penn State’s College of Engineering News.

Brainstorming solutions

Following the team’s research, Gayah and his team proposed two primary solutions:

1) A shuttle service between Perry County and a high-density employment center (Mechanicsburg), supplemented with park-and-rides within Perry County to allow people to take the shuttle and microtransit in Mechanicsburg to allow people to get to their destination.

2) Car/vanpools to help facilitate travel to Harrisburg and other employment centers.

RabbitTransit, a local transit agency, was identified to fund the shuttle service, and large regional employers would fund the car and vanpools. These solutions were designed to reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles congesting the corridors between the employment zones in Mechanicsburg and housing in Perry County.

More transit options needed

There are few flexible transit options in rural areas. “This is generally an under-studied area within the research literature,” Gayah shared via email. “Some park-and-ride service has been used in major metros along transit lines (e.g., Seattle and Washington DC). But these generally serve more suburban areas and not rural communities.”

The lack of transportation options between Perry County and Mechanicsburg highlights this challenge. While the project did not receive State 2 implementation funding from the NSF, the team is pursuing other funding opportunities continue this work.

“The reliance on (single occupant) automobiles places an undue financial burden that limits independence/mobility. There are very few, if any, transit options available and more work is needed in this area,” explained Gayah.

For more information about this project, contact:

Vikash V. Gayah

phone: 814-865-4014


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