What if public transportation was like Uber? A small town ended its bus service to find out

When a small city suddenly shut down all its buses to launch a publicly subsidized bus service offering a $1.50 ride anywhere in town, only one driver – a bus driver from a big city – came along for the ride.

Milton Barnes is used to supervising crowded subway stations in Washington, D.C., a far cry from the sparse buses he drove after moving to Wilson, North Carolina, to care for his elderly parents. Although transit ridership is down almost everywhere due to the pandemic, it has been up at Wilson since its September 2020 switch from a fixed route system to an on-demand system powered by a smartphone app.

“I pick people up and drop them off all day,” Barnes, 59, the only driver with both systems, said as he drove his truck on a typically busy morning. “When you have door-to-door, corner-to-corner service, it will be more popular.”

Long wait times made the bus route nearly unusable for David Boone, even when his car broke down and he couldn’t replace it. Instead, Boone, who has two fractured discs in his back, walked 5 miles (8 kilometers) round trip to buy groceries. Then spot a public truck and call the phone number in the back window.

“I don’t have to walk everywhere I want to go now,” said Boone, 64. “They come to pick me up, and they’re very respectful and professional. It’s a great asset to Wilson and a great service to me.”

The city with a population of less than 50,000 is often cited as a model of how less populated areas can benefit from transportation in the same way as bustling major cities.

Wilson secured federal and state infrastructure grants to support shared public rides that residents hail — usually within 15 minutes — through a service that operates like Uber and Lyft, but at a fraction of the cost to riders. Rides are now $2.50, a dollar more than they were at launch, and Boone jokes: “You can’t drive a Pinto for that.”

Other communities in North Carolina and elsewhere took notice and took advantage of available public funding to start programs of their own, increasing Wilson’s competition for continuing grant money.

“We don’t look at transportation as something that’s just for big cities,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told The Associated Press. “We want people to benefit wherever they live, including less dense rural areas. The point of transit is not to have a bus. The point of transit is to get people where they need to go.”

Wilson’s shift to micromobility came largely out of necessity, said Ryan Broomfield, director of the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Integrated Mobility Division. Officials seeking to reduce Wilson’s sluggish unemployment rate first had to address the fact that in some pockets of the city’s 23 square miles (59 square kilometers), as many as 3 in 10 residents did not have access to a car to get to work. .

“That combination of a lot of people needing a service, and it being fairly dense, makes the demand for demand quite right,” Broomfield said.

More than half of the trips are for residents who use the trucks “to maintain or get a job,” said Rodger Lentz, the assistant city manager of Wilson who pushed for the shift.

But need and convenience were not the only reasons behind the city’s 300% rise in public transportation ridership. Image was also a factor.

“In small Southern cities, public transportation is seen as being for low-income people,” said Gruna Jones, Wilson’s transportation director. “There is a stigma attached to riding the bus. Going to micromobility and non-traditional vehicles has removed that stigma.”

Wilson partnered with New York-based Via, one of the nation’s largest microhauling companies, to create the program and launch an on-demand public trucking service known as RIDE.

Via began operations seven years ago with what was then a consumer service offering shared truck rides in parts of the Upper East Side of Manhattan where the New York City subway does not go. But founder and CEO Daniel Ramot said he always viewed Via as a public transportation company, not a private competitor to Uber, though it took some time for cities to buy in.

“We literally couldn’t have a meeting,” Ramot said. “They said it was the stupidest idea they had ever heard, that it would never work, that public transportation was buses and trains.”

The first city to sign a public contract with Via was Austin, the capital of Texas, where some corridors were adequately served by city buses but others were considered transit deserts. Since then, Via has expanded its operations to fill transportation gaps in a wide range of communities in the United States and abroad.

And on the Blackfeet Reservation in rural Montana, residents can use its app to request door-to-door rides. And at one of the country’s busiest airports, Chicago’s O’Hare, FedEx freight workers are now using it to get home.

“Every move is individual,” said Melinda Metzger, executive director at PACE, a Chicago-area bus network that teamed up with Via this summer for O’Hare shuttle service. “People are going in different directions, and the biggest thing is that patterns have changed. We have to understand them and adapt to them.”

Although the pandemic has radically changed the nation’s transportation needs, it has also helped illustrate one of micromobility’s greatest assets: the ability to be nimble. Subway systems and even major bus lines lack the flexibility to change service instantaneously as demand changes, but microtransit is tailored to such fluctuations, if specifically designed for each community.

“This is not the music guy, where you bring it from one city to another,” said Alvaro Villagran, director of federal programs at the Center for Shared Use Mobility, which helps grant recipients with micromobility projects. “There are opportunities and challenges at the local level that must be taken into account.”

However, the biggest challenge of all is largely universal: cost.

While the Biden administration has prioritized mass transit and microtransit projects, and provided grants through the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed in 2021, there is growing demand for a limited amount of money.

Even Wilson won’t be able to operate under its microtransit pilot program forever without finding new ways to pay for it, said Kay Monast, associate director of the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University.

Monast predicts that although Wilson will remain committed to microhauling, the community will eventually return in part to a fixed-route system, which will be modified heavily from data collected during years of on-demand trucking trips. But he trusts the city’s creativity to make it more efficient.

“It’s possible they will find an answer that didn’t exist before,” Monast said.


McMurray reported from Chicago.

(Tags for translation)Mass Transportation

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