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

When a small city abruptly parked all its buses to launch a publicly subsidized van service offering $1.50 trips anywhere in town, only one of its bus drivers — a big-city transplant — went along for the ride.

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

Driver Milton Burnes poses for a photo with a customer David Bunn  In front of his Ride van in Wilson N.C on Aug 24, 2023.

“All day long I’m picking up people and dropping them off,” Barnes, 59, the only driver to work under both systems, said while driving his van on a typically busy morning. “When you’ve got door-to-door, corner-to-corner service, it’s going to be more popular.”

Long wait times made the bus route almost unusable for David Bunn, even when his car broke down and he couldn’t afford to replace it. Instead, Bunn, who has two broken discs in his back, would take a 5-mile (8-kilometer) roundtrip walk to pick up groceries. Then he spotted one of the public vans and dialed the phone number posted in a rear window.

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

The city of less than 50,000 people is frequently cited as a model for how less-populated areas can capitalize on transit in the same way as bustling metropolises.

Wilson landed federal and state infrastructure grants to support the shared, public rides residents summon — usually within 15 minutes — through a service operating like Uber and Lyft, but at a fraction of the cost to riders. Trips are now $2.50, a dollar more than they were at launch, and Bunn quips, “you can’t drive a Pinto for that.”

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

But need and convenience weren’t the only reasons behind the city’s 300% spike in public transit ridership. Image was a factor, too.

“In small, southern towns, the perception of public transportation is that it’s for the low-income,” said Gronna Jones, Wilson’s transportation manager. “There’s a stigma attached to riding the bus. Going to microtransit and nontraditional vehicles removed that stigma.”

Wilson partnered with New York-based Via, one of the nation’s top microtransit companies, to create the software and launch the on-demand public van service known as RIDE.

Via started operations seven years earlier with what was then a consumer service offering shared van rides in parts of Manhattan’s Upper East Side where the New York City subway didn’t go. But founder and CEO Daniel Ramot said he always considered Via a public transit company, not a private competitor to Uber, though it took a while for cities to buy in.

“We literally could not get a meeting,” Ramot said. “They said it was the dumbest idea they’d ever heard, that it was never going to work, that public transit was buses and trains.”

But need and convenience weren’t the only reasons behind the city’s 300% spike in public transit ridership. Image was a factor, too.

“In small, southern towns, the perception of public transportation is that it’s for the low-income,” said Gronna Jones, Wilson’s transportation manager. “There’s a stigma attached to riding the bus. Going to microtransit and nontraditional vehicles removed that stigma.”

Wilson partnered with New York-based Via, one of the nation’s top microtransit companies, to create the software and launch the on-demand public van service known as RIDE.

Via started operations seven years earlier with what was then a consumer service offering shared van rides in parts of Manhattan’s Upper East Side where the New York City subway didn’t go. But founder and CEO Daniel Ramot said he always considered Via a public transit company, not a private competitor to Uber, though it took a while for cities to buy in.

“We literally could not get a meeting,” Ramot said. “They said it was the dumbest idea they’d ever heard, that it was never going to work, that public transit was buses and trains.”

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

While the Biden administration has prioritized mass transit and microtransit projects, providing grants through the $1 trillion infrastructure law enacted in 2021, there is soaring 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 Kai 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 microtransit, the community eventually will return in part to a fixed-route system, adjusted heavily from the data gathered through years of on-demand van rides. But he trusts the city’s creativity to make it more efficient.

“It could be that they’ll find an answer that has never existed before,” Monast said.

Source: AP

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