Tuesday, January 24

On-demand public transit is replacing old-fashioned buses


Chudiara McMillian doesn’t own a car and relies on city transit in Wilson, North Carolina to get wherever she wants to go, whether it’s to work, shopping or making a medical appointment.

Until nearly two years ago, this meant a long wait at a bus stop because city buses only ran once an hour. Often this meant riding around town while the bus picked up and dropped off the other passengers before it finally reached its stop.

Now, when Macmillian needs transportation, she can book it on an app on her phone, and a Toyota Sienna minivan will pick her up from the city’s RIDE shuttle nearby and bring her to her destination.

“It gave me a lot of freedom to go where I wanted to go,” said Macmillian, 32, a city utilities department employee. “With RIDE, there may be a pickup or two on the way, but it’s much more convenient to book a ride on my phone and get to places faster.”

Public transportation on demand, also called microtransit, is becoming increasingly popular throughout the United States, particularly in small towns, suburbs, and rural areas.

Inspired by ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, the idea is to get people to order a ride, usually a van or shuttle, either by using a mobile app or by phone, and pay a small fare. The driver will take them, often on a corner or a few streets away, and drop them off near where they want to go within the confines of a given service. Sometimes the trip will take them to a fixed bus route or connect them to a central transit station.

Transportation agencies say they want to be more flexible and responsive, offering an alternative to passengers who may face long waits and diversions. They also hope to attract new passengers who may not be living along bus routes.

said Scott Bugreen, executive director of the American Community Transportation Association, a trade group that represents smaller transportation operators.

But some transportation advocates argue that precision transportation is a bad deal for public agencies because it is expensive and ineffective. They say transit agencies should instead focus on increasing the number of passengers on their existing routes by adding more frequent service and improving bus stops.

“Precision transportation projects are a poor use of public funds,” said Hayley Richardson, director of communications for TransitCenter, a New York-based nonprofit research and advocacy group. “There’s this non-monetary exuberance around the idea, but there’s so little to show for it.”

Large cities with a high population density usually use regular fixed bus routes where people can walk or cycle a short distance to a designated stop. But this is not possible in many suburbs and rural areas, which are sometimes called transit deserts.

Local transportation officials say setting up fixed bus lines just to reach these people would be too costly for agencies, which would end up operating full-size buses with few, if any, passengers.

A growing number of transit agencies have been rethink how it works, Especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they have had to deal with a significant drop in passengers, revenue losses, and telecommuting. They also recognize that they need to improve service for essential workers, who have been stuck with public transportation throughout the pandemic when others have abandoned it.

“From cities to rural areas, in many aspects of life, transit agencies are looking at things that may have seemed temporary during the pandemic and are now more permanent,” Bugren said. “If you had only one way to serve, a one-size-fits-all option, how responsive would you be? You need a variety of services to meet the needs of this community.”

Some agencies use microtransit to reach areas that never had transit or to increase regular service. Some are replacing poorly performing bus routes with on-demand options. Some cancel static routes entirely and replace them with microtransit. Some are offering transit for the first time.

Last year, Valdosta, Georgia, brought public transportation to the city when it launched Valdosta On-Demand. Since then, it’s happened Over 14,000 ride requests per monthAccording to Mayor Scott James Matheson.

Proponents of microtransit point out that, unlike paratransit, the shared transportation service for people with disabilities, on demand, is available to anyone. This includes passengers with disabilities who may be frustrated by the long wait times and advance notice that public transportation requires. Some microtransport vehicles are usually easily accessible for the disabled, and agencies provide door-to-door service for people with disabilities and the elderly.

Even some major cities are experimenting with microtransportation.

In the Austin, Texas area, he runs CapMetro Pickup, On-demand service in 11 regions. Officials have replaced one bus line entirely, changed other routes, and added a service that didn’t exist before, spokeswoman Blythe Kneebaker said in an email.

Some transportation agencies operate on-demand services themselves, purchasing software from private companies but using their own staff and vehicles.

This is how SporTran, the local transportation agency in the Shreveport, Louisiana area, operates. The agency, which began offering on-demand last fall, has 47 stops where people can board their flight. The main goal is to provide access to rural areas out of reach of standard bus routes, especially for low-income commuters, spokeswoman Leslie Beck said.

SporTran has pulled some bus routes and replaced them with on-demand options, including those going to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier.

“Instead of incurring the expense of running a full-size bus across the base for a few riders, we send a sedan right to them on time,” Beck said.

Other agencies contract with private micro-carriers to operate the entire on-demand service.

That’s the setting in Wilson, where buses are used on fixed routes to cover only about 40% of the city and carry 1,450 passengers in a typical week, according to Assistant City Manager Roger Lintz. Now, RIDE covers nearly 100% of the city’s 30 square miles and carries between 3,700 and 3,900 passengers per week.

“The old bus system was designed when downtown was the property of hiring,” Lintz said. “Now, we have large corporate parks on the edge of town that the system has not connected you to…


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