Ride On To Test On-Demand Bus Pickup Service

Ride On To Test On-Demand Bus Pickup Service

Trials in three county neighborhoods aim to make the ‘last mile’ connection for transit riders

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Montgomery County’s Ride On bus service will begin testing a program this summer allowing riders in three “microtransit zones” to request a bus using a smartphone app, similar to private rideshare services.

Smaller 11-passenger buses will be assigned in three specific geographic areas of Rockville, Wheaton and Glenmont at certain times, said Maureen McNulty, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Department of Transportation.

The goal of the program is to solve the county’s “last mile” problem for public transit users who don’t live near a bus stop or Metrorail station.

“On demand service has the potential to serve transportation needs across the county, but the pilot is limited to densely populated neighborhoods surrounding three Metro stations,” McNulty wrote in an email.

Riders will pay Ride On’s regular $2 fare to use the service and the app will direct them to a “virtual bus stop” nearby.

Similar microtransit programs are operating in other metropolitan areas.

The SW Prime service, started by Southwest Transit in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area, started in 2015 and allows riders to use an app, or call to schedule a bus pickup.

Commuters traveling as far as 20 or 30 miles into Minneapolis for work would pay a $4 fee and transfer for free to Southwest Transit’s regularly scheduled bus service that goes from the suburbs to the downtown.

“Initially it was an effort to address our last mile needs, CEO Len Simich said.

Simich said demand has increased significantly, with ridership at 450 per day. Yearly ridership has increased from more than 13,000 in 2015 to more than 100,000 in 2018, with the transit agency expanding the number of SW Prime buses from five to 12 at peak times.

Much of the demand increase, he said, is because riders are using the service for more than getting to work or school.

“It became apparent that there was a much bigger and broader use. Seniors gravitated toward this. People used it for their everyday needs. Social, medical, shopping,” he said.

The transit agency serves a suburban area of more than 130,000 that covers 90 square miles and runs buses from the southwestern suburbs to downtown Minneapolis, and the adjacent University of Minnesota.

Pilot programs also have started in Gwinnett County, Georgia and Sacramento, California in the last seven months.

Montgomery County plans to launch service in late June.  A public hearing on the plan is scheduled April 25 at Mario Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring.

McNulty said the pilot program will last one year and cost $384,000. The department had purchased several smaller buses for lower-use routes, and decided to dedicate three buses for the pilot program.

Locations were selected based on discussions with focus groups, citizen advisory boards, the commission on aging and two of the county’s regional services centers.

McNulty said the app was developed with the rideshare technology company Via, where users can request trips from designated pickup and drop-off locations. Riders will be given an estimated time for pick up and drop off, and directed to a nearby “virtual bus stop.”

Ride On’s proposed pilot program differs from rideshare services, in that it is designed to connect riders with transit hubs, rather than connect two distinct locations. About 69,000 riders use Ride On buses on a typical weekday, she said.

The pilot program is not meant to compete with rideshare services such as Uber or Lyft, McNulty said, but may at times compete with UberPool — a version of Uber in which riders pay a reduced fare to carpool with others traveling in the same general direction.

“It may offer an alternative to UberPool, but only where travel originates and ends within the defined zone,” she said.

Lyft officials said they don’t view public transit as a source of competition, but rather part of a broader “transportation network” that includes local transit, bicycling and electric scooter options.

“Lyft is committed to providing multimodal options … The integration of [Washington metropolitan transit authority] transit routes into our app is a great example of how we work to increase access to convenient and reliable transportation methods. There is great value in on-demand transportation and Lyft applauds Montgomery County’s efforts,” Lyft Mid-Atlantic General Manager Steve Taylor wrote in a statement.

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

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