In the Twin Cities and more than 200 urban areas across the globe, bus and train riders, bike and scooter users and those who rely on dial-a-ride services to get around can use the Transit app to plan trips and, in some cases, prepay fares.

Now those who live in southern and western Minnesota can do the same.

Through a pilot program launched this month, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is working with 13 rural public transportation providers and intercity bus companies to incorporate schedules into the app, allowing riders in parts of Greater Minnesota to explore travel options using public transit and connecting services just like those in the metro.

"This is a huge step forward for rural transportation providers," said Elliott McFadden, who serves as MnDOT's Greater Minnesota Shared Mobility program coordinator. "They are very excited. They have seen the need for the technology for a while, and it's great to get it into the hands of riders."

Otter Express in Fergus Falls, Morris Transit, and Minnesota River Valley Transit serving Le Sueur, St. Peter and Kasota are among agencies that are participating. Others such as Central Community Transit in Willmar, Prairie Five Rides in Montevideo and transit systems in Mankato and Rochester also are part of the pilot.

By aggregating schedules in Transit app, McFadden said it will be easier to plan trips within and between cities in the pilot area. For example, riders in Blue Earth, Nicollet and Le Sueur counties can take the on-demand True Transit to Mankato, then transfer to the city's bus line or Land To Air, an express service providing connections to towns along Hwy. 169, the Twin Cities and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

"It's great to see all your options and more unconventional services," McFadden said.

MnDOT identified the need to bring trip planning technology to rural areas as part of a 2021 statewide study. The agency applied for and received two innovation grants from the Federal Transit Administration and threw in some state money to cover the cost of the $1.9 million pilot that runs through April 2024.

Transit agencies won't pay a dime, McFadden said.

To spread the word and encourage riders to download the free Transit app, some transit agencies are sending emails to customers and placing posters in buses, McFadden said.

University of Minnesota researchers will study the pilot and help determine if other areas of the state should be added.

Free rides for St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick's Day revelers can leave the driving to Metro Transit. The agency is teaming up with Molson Coors to provide free rides from 6 p.m. until the end of service Friday on all buses and trains.

There also will be no charge to ride Minnesota Valley Transit Authority buses as part of the St. Patrick's Day Free Rides program.