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City to test on-demand public transit

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For Wilsonians without cars, getting to the office can be a time-consuming task involving walking to the bus stop, waiting to get on and sitting through countless stops before getting off the vehicle and walking to work hopefully to arrive in the nick of time.

A pilot program could cut the time more than 80,000 annual riders endure to get to destinations in the city thanks to a new form of public transit. Officials said they are hopeful it also will improve efficiency and impact on the environment.

"Microtransit is an on-demand, curb-to-curb service that utilizes technology like Uber, but if the driver gets another rider to pick up on the way, we're going to do that," said Rodger Lentz, chief planning and development officer. "It solves the problem of bus stops not being where people want by picking people up and dropping them off where they want to go."

City staff on Thursday presented the proposal to councilmen for a six-month pilot program for the existing yellow, orange and green routes. Starting in the first quarter of 2020, Wilson will replace the diesel bus in those areas with smaller handicapped-accessible vehicles and rather than running a set route, the drivers will be dispatched only when rides are requested. As with a traditional bus route, the microtransit will have a flat fee per ride, but users of the test program will only be able to use microtransit for a destination within the pilot area.

"I think this will be seen as a much more convenient service that has the ability to connect users to more destinations. This will hopefully increase our ridership numbers," Lentz said. "Preliminarily, based on simulations, costs should go down or at least be neutral. The pilot is going to allow us to collect real-world data, so we can then project cost and ridership for a complete transition from fixed route to on-demand transit."

The city is slated to spend $1.3 million on public transit with $609,100 in grants from the federal and state government in fiscal year 2019. Wilson operates two main routes, a shuttle route and the three lowest performing routes from 6:25 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. On Thursday, the whole system had 205 rides with the pilot program routes accounting for 75 trips.

A year of behind-the-scenes work and assistance from Ford's smart mobility company, TransLoc, has allowed staff to run simulations about ride time depending on the amount of users. If the city uses three vehicles within the pilot area, the average wait time for a ride would be 4 minutes if there are 100 daily rides or 12.3 minutes if there are 200 daily rides, and the average ride duration in both scenarios is less than 7 minutes total. The goal is to have users wait less than 15 or 20 minutes for a ride. 

Lentz said before the pilot program is launched, staff will survey current users and others to find out preferences as well as access to smartphones to use the TransLoc app to request microtransit rides.

"This will help us learn in what ways to design the service, payment collection and the demand we may have for phone calls into a dispatch telephone number," he said. "I want to encourage people to connect with us when the survey is available, so we can have the best possible start to the microtransit pilot."

Microtransit has been successful in other communities, including a Kansas City suburb and a county east of Atlanta. City Manager Grant Goings said he is optimistic the service will help solve the transportation issue for unemployed residents while also appealing to residents of all ages.

"No other city our size in the country is doing something this technology-driven," he said. "...I think there are numerous potential benefits and this pilot will be a good place to start. Once it is complete, we'll have more complete data to make a better decision for the whole system."

Councilman Donald Evans noted the program might spur feedback from those driving for ridesharing companies or taxi services. Staff said Wilson Transit System's current operating hours will translate to the pilot program, so the private sector is apt to serve after-hours as well as residents who prefer individual rides.

"I've heard some horror stories from constituents who ride the bus to work. This would be much more efficient," Councilman Derrick Creech said. "Several have even lost their jobs, but this could be an advantage to all in the city."