116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk with Mike Barnhart and Kelzye Bedwell of the local nonprofit Horizons, particularly about Horizons’ Neighborhood Transportation Service (NTS). Founded in 1995 in response to taxicabs refusing to drive to the Wellington Heights neighborhood at night, NTS provides essential transportation services to work, school, and training whenever and wherever the city bus does not go, for people who lack access to a private car for whatever reason. Since its inception, NTS now covers the entirety of Cedar Rapids, Marion, and Hiawatha.
NTS seeks to address a problem that has now long plagued American cities. Described as “spatial mismatch” by the Census Bureau, and as job sprawl in other contexts, the suburbanization of American housing also has been accompanied by the sprawl of workplaces. I’ve already written enough about why this is terrible, but in the context of work this is especially problematic as it requires people to by necessity sink thousands of dollars into a car even before one receives a paycheck, as opposed to having the option to take transit to work for much less, or to walk or bike to work for essentially free.
Indeed, as Cedar Rapids’ core neighborhoods slowly emptied of people throughout the latter half of the 20th century, places for work and commerce followed. Perhaps some of the more famous examples would have been the relocation of large department stores like Sears from downtown to shopping malls in the 1960s, before the malls, too, would experience their own challenges in the 2010s. But for the many people still living in core neighborhoods who cannot drive or cannot afford a private car, this “spatial mismatch” can pose an existential issue in the ability to access work.
The demographics of NTS are telling in who is most impact by this “spatial mismatch,” as well as the initial impetus of taxicabs refusing to serve a certain part of time. Per Barnhart and Bedwell, the demographics of NTS riders are 47 percent white, 48 percent Black, 1 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian. Compare this to Census estimates from 2021, which places the demographics of Cedar Rapids at around 82 percent white, 9 percent Black, 3 percent Asian, and 4 percent Hispanic.
While historically limited to work, education, and training, the scope of NTS has been increasing in recent years. It provided transportation for Afghan refugees to government appointments and work in 2021, links people to day care and parenting classes through a young parents’ network, has partnered with a local health clinic to cover rides to medical appointments, and is now helping the Cedar Rapids Community School District cover a school bus operator shortage by covering 10 routes, with an orientation toward students with disabilities and special needs.
Even so, throughout its life, the existence of NTS has always been predicated upon a complicated patchwork of public and private founding. NTS was initially founded as a partnership between the Wellington Heights neighborhood association, United Way, Harambee House, and the City of Cedar Rapids, which chipped in a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the program’s first van. In the present, NTS has retained support from United Way and local municipal governments such as Cedar Rapids, and now has the support of the school district from the aforementioned school bus routes they have taken on.
Although Barnhart and Bedwell were sure to note the “good relationships” and “partnerships with various entities” Horizons had through NTS, it is stark how complex and convoluted it is to fund this one public transit service, compared to the usually much simpler funding formulas used to build highways and other car-oriented infrastructure. This tendency also has been seen in the construction of public housing — no matter how essential it may be, social services which need to dedicate that much time and effort to simply exist are unlikely to be able to scale up significantly.
With this expanded role, plus the always delicate balance of funding. I asked Barnhart and Bedwell if there had ever been any discussion in fully moving NTS to public control, especially given the public ownership of most transit services in the US. They answered that they preferred to keep NTS as a nonprofit, to keep it “nimble” and aligned with Horizons’ “mission” — that “transportation should not be a barrier to employment.” And to their credit, NTS has been able to weather many of the challenges that have faced public transit since 2020 while actually expanding its scope, such as adding in new partnerships to keep fares flat at $6 since 2016, increasing operator wages, and hiring more people with shorter hours and greater scheduling flexibility. However, I was disappointed to hear a lack of mention in NTS’ or Horizons’ mission of anything about addressing the root cause of spatial inequities in the area, or why NTS must exist in the first place: expansive car-dependent urban sprawl, based upon reinforcing class and racial segregation.
In an ideal world, NTS probably would not exist. Development would be compact enough where many people would live close enough to work to bike, walk, or take transit to work. Public transit would be fast, frequent, and run all day, eliminating the need for a supplemental service like NTS to pick up the slack when the bus stops running by 8 p.m. Society would be equal and without the stark disparities described earlier. But in the absence of such a world, NTS is there to plug in the gaps, in spite of the bounds placed upon it both by geography and by paperwork.
Austin Wu is a Gazette Editorial Fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org
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