County’s On-Demand Bus Service Debuts

County’s On-Demand Bus Service Debuts

Ride On Flex six-month trial program offers a way to get to transit hubs in Rockville, Wheaton during peak hours

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From left, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Executive Director Chuck Bean, Montgomery County Department of Transportation Director Al Roshdieh, County Council member Hans Riemer (At-large), County Executive Marc Elrich, County Council member Sidney Katz (District 3) and Rockville Director of Public Works Craig Simoneau

Dan Schere

As Ride On Flex bus driver Eze Iheme pulled up to the Rockville Metro station curb Wednesday at 11:20 a.m., he said ridership hadn’t been too bad so far.

“We’ve had six so far, but one was a no-show,” he said.

It was two hours into the debut of the county bus system’s on-demand pickup service, known as Flex, which is being tested for six months in areas within a one-mile radius of the Rockville Metro station, as well as the Wheaton and Glenmont stations.

The goal is to give riders who normally use public transportation a way to travel the “first mile” or “last mile” from their home to a transit hub for a flat $2 fare.

Buses run Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the Rockville zone, and from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Wheaton/Glenmont zone. Riders must use exact change if paying in cash, but alternatively can use their SmarTrip card, which is used on Metro and regular Ride On routes. College and high school students may ride free with a valid ID.

Riders can use the service by downloading the mobile application Ride On Flex and typing in pickup and dropoff locations, similar to ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft. The app will then attempt to connect the user with the closest 11-passenger bus that is circulating, and  will give an estimated time of arrival and instructions to walk to a nearby location.

A request from one user to pick them up at 100 Gibbs St. in Rockville directed them to the corner of Maryland Avenue and East Middle Lane, a couple of blocks away.

Users receive a 2-minute warning when the bus is arriving at the designated location. Once the bus arrives, they have 1 minute to board before the bus pulls away.

“There is a clock that begins counting down from 59 [seconds] when the bus stops,” said Iheme.

County officials marked the debut with a news conference Wednesday morning in Rockville Town Square.

“We all know that one of the struggles of transportation in the suburbs is that we don’t have a grid of streets. There aren’t a lot of ways for people to get to transit and there aren’t a lot of ways for transit to penetrate neighborhoods who don’t want large buses wandering around the neighborhoods,” said County Executive Marc Elrich.

A small outreach event took place from 2 p.m. to 3:20 p.m. in front of JC Penney at Westfield Wheaton Mall. A model Flex bus was parked, its wheelchair lift lowered, and a Ride On and Nandos tent were also stationed out front.

David Pearsall, transit operations supervisor with Ride On, said that for the last three weeks, he and drivers have been riding around and training for the launch of the service.

“Our operators are well prepared,” he said.

“I know the county,” said Pearsall, who has been working for Ride On for 11 years, “and I know what the county needs, and this is a needed bus service from door-to-door, and door-to-Metro.”

Madeline Turner, 69, said though this was her first time using the service, she got the app two weeks ago so she could have time to learn how to use it. She said she requested to be picked up from Wheaton Station, having been at Giant, and expressed concerns about the safety of the app’s curbside pickups.

“I’m going to keep going to Wheaton Station … to me, safety comes first. Not ease,” she said.

“I’m just happy that we have it, because we have never had anything for my neighborhood … nothing comes here, nothing comes down my street … this is the first time. I’ve lived in this house since 1995, and I’ve never seen any motor transportation other than Lyft and Uber.”

The county partnered with the New York-based transportation systems company Via to launch the initiative. County Department of Transportation Director Al Roshdieh said the project cost less than $10,000.

Jason Starr, a Via employee who is leading the company’s partnership with the county, said the service is similar to other on-demand transit services the company has run across the country.

“We worked very closely with MCDOT representatives on this project over the course of the last six months or so to customize the application for Montgomery County users, customize the service itself around the specific [places] that they wanted to serve, and then to really think about the type of people and commuters that were going to use a service like this in order to make it accessible,” Starr said.

Roshdieh said the county will examine the app data to determine whether there is enough demand to continue or expand the service.

“As soon as you request a ride, it’s tracked. We have a good system in place to track ridership, and that’s critical data we’re going to be looking at,” he said.

Roshdieh said the metrics the department will be using include the number of users and the locations they are taking the service.

“I’m going to look at if people are using this service to go shopping during the day and if people are using it to complete that first and last mile [to get to a transit hub]” he said. “Are we getting more people on mass transit is the real question?”

Bethesda Magazine intern Setota Hailemariam contributed to this report.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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