What Happens When a Small Town Adopts On-Demand Public Transit? A Case Study from Wilson, North Carolina

by Lucas Garcia
Microtransit in Wilson

A transition from urban to rural — an insider’s perspective.

Previously responsible for managing crowded metro stations in Washington, D.C., Milton Barnes found himself navigating a starkly different landscape after relocating to Wilson, North Carolina, to assist his aging parents. Although public transit ridership suffered nationally due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson experienced a significant uptick following its September 2020 shift from a traditional fixed-route model to an app-based, on-demand transit system.

“I find myself continually transporting individuals throughout the day,” said Barnes, aged 59 and the sole driver to have worked under both service models, during a typically busy morning. “The door-to-door, corner-to-corner offering is understandably more appealing to the public.”

David Bunn, hindered by lengthy waiting times on the traditional bus system and unable to afford car repairs, resorted to walking five miles for groceries. Then he noticed a publicly-operated van, contacted the number listed on the rear window, and his experience transformed.

“Now, I don’t have to walk long distances for my errands,” commented Bunn, aged 64. “The drivers are both courteous and professional. The service is an asset to Wilson and invaluable to me.”

With a population under 50,000, Wilson has become a blueprint for how smaller municipalities can efficiently operate public transportation systems, drawing parallels with larger cities. The city secured federal and state grants to support this public ride-share model that operates much like Uber or Lyft but at substantially reduced costs for users. Fare prices currently stand at $2.50 per ride.

“This is cheaper than operating a Pinto,” Bunn humorously noted.

The success of Wilson’s model has caught the attention of other communities in North Carolina and beyond, heightening competition for ongoing grant availability.

Known as microtransit, these smaller, technology-driven public transit solutions are leveling the field in infrastructure funding, traditionally dominated by the more extensive needs of urban areas.

“Transit isn’t exclusive to large metropolitan areas. Its purpose is to serve people everywhere, including in less populated regions,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement to The Big Big News.

Ryan Brumfield, director of North Carolina’s Department of Transportation Integrated Mobility Division, indicated that necessity drove Wilson’s transition. Addressing the high unemployment rate, city officials first tackled the issue of limited vehicle access for a substantial percentage of the city’s population.

“This density of demand makes on-demand services an ideal fit,” Brumfield concluded.

Over 50% of rides in Wilson are employment-related, according to Rodger Lentz, the city’s Assistant Manager who advocated for the switch.

Yet, convenience and necessity aren’t the sole factors behind the 300% surge in ridership. Gronna Jones, Wilson’s transportation manager, pointed out that the stigma often associated with public transportation in smaller, southern towns had been mitigated by the shift to microtransit.

In partnership with New York-based Via, Wilson launched the RIDE program. Via, originally offering shared van rides in under-served parts of Manhattan, has since broadened its scope, serving various communities across the U.S. and globally.

The flexibility of microtransit systems offers distinct advantages over traditional public transit methods, particularly during fluctuations in demand, a trait highlighted during the pandemic.

However, Alvaro Villagran, director of federal programs at the Shared-Use Mobility Center, stressed that localized conditions should inform any implementation.

The overarching challenge remains funding. While the Biden administration has earmarked infrastructure grants for mass transit and microtransit projects, the funds are limited.

“Wilson will eventually need to find sustainable funding mechanisms,” noted Kai Monast, associate director of the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University.

Monast anticipates that while Wilson will continue embracing microtransit, it might reintroduce a modified fixed-route system, utilizing data gathered over years of operating the on-demand service. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic about Wilson’s inventive approaches to transportation.

“They might just discover a solution that is entirely unprecedented,” Monast suggested.

Reported by McMurray from Chicago.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Microtransit in Wilson, North Carolina

What is the main subject of the article?

The main subject of the article is the transition of Wilson, North Carolina, from a traditional fixed-route public transit system to an on-demand, app-based microtransit service. It examines the implications, challenges, and successes of this shift.

What led Wilson to adopt an on-demand transit system?

Wilson adopted an on-demand transit system primarily out of necessity. The city aimed to address its high unemployment rate and found that a significant portion of its population lacked vehicle access. The on-demand system was identified as an ideal fit to meet these challenges.

What are the key benefits of Wilson’s on-demand system as mentioned in the article?

The key benefits include increased ridership, reduced stigma associated with public transport in smaller towns, quick and convenient service, and greater appeal to a broad section of the population, including those using the service for employment-related activities.

Who are the main stakeholders involved in Wilson’s microtransit initiative?

The main stakeholders are the city of Wilson, the U.S. Transportation Department, North Carolina’s Department of Transportation, Via (a New York-based microtransit company), and local residents who use the service.

How is the microtransit system funded?

The microtransit system in Wilson is funded through federal and state infrastructure grants. However, the article points out that sustainable funding mechanisms will be needed for the program’s long-term viability.

What has been the impact on other communities?

Other communities in North Carolina and beyond have taken notice of Wilson’s success and have begun to tap into available public funding to initiate their own microtransit programs. This has increased competition for ongoing grant money.

What challenges does the microtransit model face?

The most significant challenge is the limited availability of funding. While there is soaring demand for such innovative public transit solutions, the amount of available grant money is finite.

How does the U.S. Transportation Secretary view the role of microtransit?

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg emphasizes that transit is not just for large cities but should benefit people wherever they live. He sees microtransit as a way to meet this objective.

How has the public perception of public transit changed in Wilson?

The shift to microtransit has helped mitigate the stigma often associated with public transportation in smaller, southern towns. The service is now seen as more appealing and less tied to socio-economic status.

Is the on-demand model specific to Wilson, or can it be replicated elsewhere?

The on-demand model is not exclusive to Wilson. The concept of microtransit is flexible and can be adapted to the specific conditions and needs of other communities, both urban and rural.

More about Microtransit in Wilson, North Carolina

  • Microtransit: An Overview
  • U.S. Department of Transportation: Public Transit Initiatives
  • North Carolina Department of Transportation: Integrated Mobility Division
  • Via: The Company Powering Wilson’s Transition to On-Demand Transit
  • Federal and State Infrastructure Grants: Eligibility and Application
  • Challenges and Opportunities in Rural Public Transit
  • Wilson, North Carolina: City Website
  • The Role of Technology in Transforming Public Transit
  • Sustainability of Microtransit Projects
  • The $1 Trillion Infrastructure Law of 2021: Summary and Implications

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DonnaG September 16, 2023 - 10:12 am

Still trying to wrap my head around the 300% increase in ridership. That’s not just change, thats a revolution in transit.

EmilyR September 16, 2023 - 9:28 pm

It’s about time we rethink public transit. Kudos to Wilson for being brave enough to change the norm.

NinaW September 16, 2023 - 10:11 pm

Grants are great, but what about long term? Don’t wanna see this crumble down due to lack of funds.

LindaQ September 16, 2023 - 11:00 pm

Anyone else thinkin bout how this could work in their own town? I mean, if Wilson can do it, why can’t we?

JohnSmith September 16, 2023 - 11:22 pm

Wow, I never thought I’d see the day where a small city like Wilson could lead the way in public transit. Really changes the game for rural areas.

SarahM September 17, 2023 - 12:26 am

honestly didn’t know what microtransit was before reading this. Sounds like a game-changer. Wilson’s doin’ it right!

AaronP September 17, 2023 - 3:45 am

A small city setting an example that could be followed by bigger cities? now thats what i call innovation!

MikeJ September 17, 2023 - 4:31 am

Federal and state grants, huh? good to know where our tax dollars are going. If it’s working, I’m all for it.

ChrisZ September 17, 2023 - 7:05 am

Stigma about public transport is real. If this can change perceptions, its a win-win for everyone.

TimK September 17, 2023 - 8:53 am

Hats off to Via for making this work. Tried their service once in NYC. Quality stuff.


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