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This small city ditched its buses. Its public Uber-like service has been a big hit

A RIDE minivan parks across the street from City Hall in Wilson, N.C.
Nick Delacanal/ WFAE
A RIDE minivan parks across the street from City Hall in Wilson, N.C.

WILSON, N.C. — What if you could catch a ride on public transportation the same way you catch an Uber or Lyft? That's the promise of microtransit, where residents order public transportation from their phone, rather than wait at a bus stop.

Some cities and towns around the U.S. have begun to embrace the model, including the small city of Wilson, North Carolina, population 49,000. The town, about 55 miles east of Raleigh, took the dramatic step of replacing its bus system with on demand minivans about two years ago, and says it's been a game changer for residents.

Before, the city had five fixed bus routes that ran once an hour.

"That's really trapping for people," said Wilson's city planner, Rodger Lentz. "Now the system covers 100 percent of the city. So there's nowhere that is inaccessible by transit."

On a recent Tuesday morning, an eighth-grader named Caleb stood on the curb in front of his small brick home waiting for a van he had ordered to pick him up and take him to school.

The time was about 9 a.m., and Caleb was running late for first period. When the van arrived, he flung open the door and collapsed into the back seat.

"I missed the bus this morning. Obviously, I overslept," he said as he slid his backpack between his legs with a sheepish grin.

It wasn't the first time he had overslept, he said, but this time his mom, who gave permission for his first name to be used in this story, was unable to take him to school because her car had broken down.

So with mom's permission, Caleb used his phone to order this black-and-blue minivan — one of 15 in Wilson — and he was on his way to second period.

It's $1.50 for a van to go anywhere within city limits

The ride cost him $1.50, the standard fare residents pay when they order a van over the phone or through a mobile app. The vans will take them anywhere within city limits.

Lentz said the city spent years exploring the idea of replacing its fixed bus routes with on-demand rides, and finally took the leap in September 2020 in partnership with a company Via, which provided software, vehicles and drivers in exchange for city funding.

The service proved popular right from the start.

Wilson's transportation center was once the hub connecting the city's five bus lines. Now, the center is mostly empty, and the spaces where buses used to park have been turned into street parking.
/ Nick Delacanal/ WFAE
Nick Delacanal/ WFAE
Wilson's transportation center was once the hub connecting the city's five bus lines. Now, the center is mostly empty, and the spaces where buses used to park have been turned into street parking.

"In our first week, we had almost 600 trips, and then it doubled, literally, the next week," Lentz said.

These days, the service runs about 3,700 trips a week, Lentz said, or more than two and a half times the 1,400 rides the old bus system ran in a typical, pre-pandemic week.

Lentz also said the on-demand rides aren't just helping kids get to school, they're also getting people to work.

"Nearly 50 percent of trips are journeys to work, and we've asked questions like, 'Has this system enabled you to get work?' and we've got a lot of affirmative yeses," he said.

That includes people like Deanna Braswell, who climbed into a minivan with a big mug of coffee on her way to her job at a local supermarket.

She doesn't have a car and said the on-demand rides had become her primary transportation.

"It's a blessing, really," she said. "It's my way of getting to work. It's my way of, you know, paying my bills."

Wilson is among a handful of cities trying out microtransit

It's not clear how many towns and cities across the country are replacing or supplementing public transportation with on-demand rides. A handful of cities like Seattle and Atlanta are using federal grant money to try it out in hard-to-reach neighborhoods.

Jarrett Walker, a public transportation consultant in Portland, Ore., said he thought on-demand rides could help connect outlying areas to public transportation, but he worried citywide service, like in Wilson, might not be sustainable and would be cost-prohibitive for bigger cities while increasing congestion.

"As soon as demand starts going up, or if you put out a service and it starts to become popular — you can't carry very many people in each vehicle, so you have to start adding vehicles and it becomes very expensive for the government to subsidize," Walker said.

Lentz said the on-demand ride service is costing the city of Wilson about $1.6 million a year, compared to the $1.3 million it spent on bus service pre-pandemic.

But for a small city like Wilson, Lentz said he thought it was worth it.

"For $1.6 million, we're providing well over twice as many trips and covering 100 percent of the city with a system that picks you up within 15 to 20 minutes of your request, versus a bus that was only running once an hour."

The city kept the old buses in storage just in case the ride service didn't work out. It has, so the old fleet of six buses is now slated for auction.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 20, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story said the shuttle service gave about 37,000 rides a week compared with 26,000 bus rides under the old system. Actually, the numbers are 3,700 and 1,400 trips, respectively.
Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal