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On-Demand Public Transit in the Works for Wilson

Posted Thursday, March 5, 2020 10:23 pm

By Brie Handgraaf


Via would replace city bus service


If all goes according to plans, Wilson could have the first bus system in the state replaced with on-demand public transportation, and the changes could take effect as soon as July.

Larry Bynum gets off a bus Thursday in downtown Wilson. The city is researching replacing the fixed-route system with on-demand public transportation.

“As a rider using the app, they would input where they are and where they want to go. The system assigns the rider the best seat in the best vehicle to their destination, then tells the rider to go to a pickup point that we call a virtual bus stop to get their ride,” said Via representative Olivia Blahut, who explained that bus stop is often an intersection near the user. “Riders can track where the vehicle is before hopefully sharing that vehicle with riders going in the same direction. The driver is told in real time where to go to make sure it is the most efficient path from Point A to Point B, so it feels a lot like using different ridesharing apps.”


Via would follow the Wilson Transit System’s current operating schedule, but Blahut said for riders who are physically unable to go to a virtual bus stop, door-to-door service would be available. Officials said the on-demand system would be a cost-effective solution that could drastically reduce the time riders spend in transit, offering more flexible and reliable transportation.


Wilson Forward Executive Director Paula Benson said transportation is a barrier to improving education, health and wellness and workforce development among Wilsonians.


“I think this is what we need in our community,” Benson said. “We have buses running each day, but because of availability, timing, the structure of routes or even the stigma of public transportation, they aren’t used as much as an on-demand system could be. This model can address a lot of those challenges and I’m excited about it. I think there are going to be many local partners and citizens who also will be excited about this option.”


Rodger Lentz, Wilson chief planning and development officer, has been investigating alternatives to the city’s fixed bus route system for several years and in October, he pitched a pilot program called microtransit that would have replaced two underutilized routes with on-demand service.


“Under microtransit, we started looking at a small area, but it was problematic because riders who wanted to go to destinations not in that area like shopping or the hospital would still have to transfer to another route,” Lentz explained. “When we started looking at this option, our recommendation is to just rip the Band-Aid off and go all-in. ...We’re talking about completely replacing our system.”


In preparation for the pilot microtransit system, several surveys were conducted that revealed potential adaptations to Via’s system to ensure it fits Wilson. According to one survey, 51% of respondents don’t have a smartphone, so users of the Via system would be able to call into dispatch to request a ride. Officials also are pushing a partnership between Greenlight Community Broadband and Republic Wireless to offer customers a more affordable option to access smartphone technology.


Surveys also revealed that 66% of riders prefer paying with cash and many do not have a bank account, so a debit or voucher program will be added to allow riders to deposit funds as necessary. The proposed rate would be a flat $1.50 per ride, but weekly and monthly passes also will be available.


“We understand that many do not use debit or credit cards, so it was important to us that we offered a solution that could bridge that gap,” Lentz said. “The dedicated transit debit card also addresses people’s unwillingness to provide their credit card information into an app or provide the number over the phone with dispatch.”


In the past month, Wilson Transit System, which operates six days a week, completed 3,150 trips with 1,188 riders requiring transfers. Currently the city employs 10 full-time workers and three part-time staffers for the transit system, but if a contract is approved, Via would offer a turnkey operation with responsibility for staffing and vehicles.


“I’m not sure what hurdles we may run into by being the first in the state, but we saw that with our broadband utility. I think there are advantages to being the first,” City Manager Grant Goings said. “The thing very different from Greenlight is that we have a very experienced partner who has done this around the globe, so while it is the first time in North Carolina, it is not the first time for Via.”


The Wilson City Council agreed Thursday to have staff develop a one-year contract with Via. Once it’s negotiated, the council would have to approve the contract.

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