RALEIGH — The public transportation system in Wilson, as in many places, needs taxpayer subsidies to keep the buses running. The difference between the cost of operating the system and revenues, led by passenger fares, is more than $1 million a year.
As is the case with other cities, too few people use public transportation.
“When we see a $200,000 vehicle driving around that has got three people on it … we’ve often commented that we would be better off just paying their taxi fare than we would running empty buses around,” Wilson Chief Planning and Development Officer Rodger Lentz said. “That tells me that our fixed routes aren’t working.”
Lentz believes the solution to his city’s transportation woes could come from the Durham-based microtransit company TransLoc
Wilson is flirting with replacing all of its buses with an agency-operated fleet of smaller vehicles powered by TransLoc’s microtransit technology, which — much like Uber and Lyft, offers riders flexible routes rather than scheduled rides to and from fixed stops. TransLoc now sells its tracking technology to the campus transit systems at N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Duke University, and is in a pilot program with the GoTriangle transit agency.
Taking the microtransit route would bring Wilson in line with a shift in living, working, and shopping patterns which has gone on for decades.
“My opinion is that we need to turn transit on its head and try something entirely new,” Lentz said. “For the small community, if it could be done affordably, this could be a potential transit solution for cities that are like Wilson.”
Cities need such a solution. The suburbanization of the past four decades has rendered North Carolina’s fixed transit routes obsolete and played havoc with ridership, said Robert Poole, Reason Foundation director of transportation policy.
“It used to be that people commuted from every point of the compass to downtown, the central business district. That’s hardly true anymore,” Poole said. “The commuting problem is from everywhere to everywhere. And no fixed route transit system can do a very good job of solving the everywhere to everywhere problem.”
TransLoc is gambling that it can solve that problem by selling its microtransit technology to transportation agencies, which own and operate the fleet of cars and vans.
Other privately owned microtransit companies have floundered under high operating costs and flagging demand. They must maintain a fleet of vehicles, their drivers can unionize, and they often face hostile transit agencies or competing services.
Even so, TransLoc, which sold to Ford Motor Co. earlier this year, faces political and logistic challenges. TransLoc may not take ridership from the bus system, but it takes money. The shift to microtransit usually requires the politically fraught decision to jettison fixed bus routes and replace traditional buses with commuter vans or other smaller vehicles, said Poole.
Then there are the skeptics, who point out that microtransit almost always increases the number of miles logged by a transit agency while decreasing the number of people who can be served — including people who may not know or have the technology to effectively hail a ride on a public transit vehicle.
In January, GoTriangle — the regional transit agency for Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill — began a year-long trial with TransLoc. It hoped to increase the ridership it had carried on an older system of shuttle buses. But under TransLoc, ridership fell by an average of 10 boardings a day, probably because of unreliable arrival times, said John Tallmadge, GoTriangle director of regional services.
“It introduces more uncertainty,” said Tallmadge. “For people who need to make that connection, for a number of them it is not working well and a number of those customers are finding other ways to and from work.”
The city of Wilson paid TransLoc roughly $25,000 to run the system and tests. If it decides to go forward with microtransit, it will pay a licensing fee of up to $500 per vehicle each month.
In small cities, Lentz hopes, TransLoc will offer quicker, more practical transit, as well as opening up new, underserved areas to public transportation.
“Out in the transit world, there are people that don’t see microtransit favorably, and I could see in a big city that has a lot of ridership along fixed routes, this might not make sense,” Lentz said. “But in a community like ours, where the [bus] ridership is so low, the usage is so low, and the time it takes to make that trip is so high, [the bus system] is not even remotely competitive with a private vehicle.”
Other cities across the nation are experimenting with partnerships with on-demand services. Most offer subsidized rides to public transit stations, but some have replaced bus lines with discounted ridesharing services, a 2018 study by Chaddick Institute — an offshoot of DePaul University — says.
“The citizens will probably be better served, and so will the taxpayers by using on-demand services than by buying a whole bus fleet and maintaining it,” said David Hartgen, UNC- Charlotte emeritus professor of transportation studies.
Wilson is scheduled to begin its trial with TransLoc in late October.
“The jury is still out on those to see how much of a market [for microtransit] is there, really,” Poole said. “If they make it work, this could be a model for a lot of smaller cities that have real trouble sustaining a bus system. That could be the dawn of something really important.”