Cantua Creek is a tiny unincorporated community in rural California, some 45 miles from the city of Fresno. It’s surrounded by open space and farmland; there are no doctors or grocery stores, no large retail shops or lawyer’s offices.
Of its 466 occupants, 461 identify as Hispanic or Latino, and most of them work in the nearby fields as pickers or doing other agricultural work. Many don’t have daily access to a car, making simple trips to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment punishingly complicated.
“This is the life we lead, this is what it is to live in the countryside,” says Julia, a resident of Cantua Creek who speaks only Spanish and asked to be identified by first name only. “It’s at least 20 minutes to get to the store, and it never has everything you need. I travel 35 minutes to get to the doctor. It’s an hour to the nearest city.”
This situation is not exactly unique; living far away from amenities is more or less a fact of rural life. But for the unincorporated communities of the San Joaquin Valley, the absence of critical infrastructure adds to the trouble -- these areas often lack functional roads and even access to clean water. Community organizations like the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability are fighting against long-standing land use practices that they say have created systemic inequalities for unincorporated and rural communities in California’s agricultural epicenter. One of the issues they’re most deeply concerned with is transportation.
“Many of the communities we work with are very isolated,” says Veronica Garibay, the co-founder and co-director of the Leadership Counsel. “We’re really focused on unincorporated areas in Fresno County, where sometimes there are dirt roads and no sidewalks. We try to add needed infrastructure [for mobility], and also advocate policies for transportation solutions.”
In Cantua Creek, the community came up with its own solution, albeit an informal and makeshift one. “Everyone is always asking for rides,” Julia says. “If people know you have a car, they ask you all the time, 'Can you take me to the doctor? Can you take me to the store?'”
Residents eventually organized an informal vanpool. It worked OK, but there were snags, Julia says. Twice, her elderly aunt was left waiting at an agreed-upon pickup point for two hours and never made it to her appointment. There is only so much an informal system can do to cover the needs of a whole community, Julia says.
“We knew that the community wanted to give this informal vanpool system more structure and financial support,” says Amanda Monaco, a policy advocate at the Leadership Counsel. “So we helped them apply for a grant.”
In March, Cantua Creek and nearby El Porvenir were named winners of the Just Transit Challenge, a contest hosted by the 11th Hour Project that is meant “to bring equitable and climate-friendly transportation solutions to cities across America.” The tiny communities won enough money to purchase a seven-passenger Tesla van and begin a formal pilot electric rideshare program. The grant will fund the van purchase, insurance and all program costs for one year, Monaco says. After that, the hope is that modest ridership fees (which have yet to be calculated exactly) should cover the cost of the program; for now, the program’s planned start date is the end of July.
Importantly, residents won't need to use a smartphone to organize a ride for themselves. They'll be able to call in to a Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission dispatch line, which will organize pickup timing for people's rides. The van will be in operation five days per week, and it will be available for rent in the community on the weekends.
Julia says that if people are able to use the rideshare service consistently, it could change their lives and expand mobility for the community in a meaningful way. Back when she did not have a car, she says, she used to have to wait to go places until her husband could take the day off work to drive her, which wasn’t feasible for frequent trips. “The bosses don’t like it when you miss work,” she says.
Monaco, too, thinks this program has the potential to substantially improve life in Cantua Creek and El Porvenir. “With this increased mobility, you’ll see improved health, they’ll be able to get better-quality food and go to the doctor more often,” she says. “On a broader scale, community-based and community-driven transit projects [like this] are vital for showing local transportation agencies and local government that these solutions are good investments, and they should pay for these kinds of projects in rural unincorporated areas.”
The clean energy aspect is no small part of the project, either. “With these kinds of projects, rural areas can show that they too can be a part of the climate solution,” Monaco says. “And we can all start moving toward more equity and [government] investment in rural unincorporated areas.”