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On-demand shuttles are replacing buses in some areas


What if you could catch a ride on public transportation by making a phone call or using an app? That's the promise of microtransit, where residents get service when and where they need it, rather than by waiting at a bus stop. Nick de la Canal of member station WFAE reports from a town in rural North Carolina that's an early adopter of this idea.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, darling. What's your name?

CALEB: Caleb.


NICK DE LA CANAL, BYLINE: It's about 9 o'clock in the morning in the town of Wilson, N.C., and an eighth grader named Caleb is running late for first period.

CALEB: I missed the bus this morning. Obviously, I overslept.

DE LA CANAL: He sinks into the minivan's backseat with a sheepish grin, peeking out beneath his hoodie. This isn't the first time he's overslept, but today his mom can't take him.

CALEB: Her car broke down, so she can't really drive.

DE LA CANAL: So with Mom's permission, he ordered a ride on his phone, and he's on his way to second period. This is the city's public transportation system. People order rides through an app or with a phone call. For $1.50, they can ride anywhere within Wilson. Rodger Lentz is the city planner. He says Wilson, with a population of about 50,000, replaced bus service with these on-demand minivans almost two years ago in partnership with a company called Via. The city pays Via for vehicles, drivers and software to run it all.

RODGER LENTZ: We had almost 600 trips that first week, and then it doubled literally the next week.

DE LA CANAL: And ridership has continued to grow. Lentz says now the service runs about 3,700 trips a week, and that's more than 2 1/2 times the ridership of the old bus system pre-pandemic. Lentz says people have come to rely on the rides.

LENTZ: Nearly 50% of trips are journeys to work, and we've asked questions like, has this system enabled you to get work? And, you know, we've gotten a lot of affirmative yeses.

DE LA CANAL: That includes Deanna Braswell, who climbs in to get to her job at a local supermarket.

DEANNA BRASWELL: It's a blessing, really.

DE LA CANAL: She doesn't have a car and says these rides are her primary transportation.

BRASWELL: It's my way of getting to work. It's my way of, you know, paying my bills.

DE LA CANAL: 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 is a public transportation consultant in Portland, Ore. He says on-demand rides can help connect outlying areas to public transportation. But he worries that citywide service, like in Wilson, might not be sustainable. It would be cost-prohibitive for bigger cities and increase congestion.

JARRETT WALKER: 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.

DE LA CANAL: Lentz says the ride service costs the city of Wilson about 25% more than buses. But for a smaller city like his, he thinks it's worth it.

LENTZ: For $1.6 million, we're providing well over twice as many trips and covering 100% 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.

DE LA CANAL: And that stuck to one of five fixed routes. 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 going up for auction.

For NPR News, I'm Nick de la Canal now in Wilson, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick de la Canal
WFAE's Nick de la Canal can be heard on public radio airwaves across the Charlotte region, bringing listeners the latest in local and regional news updates. He's been a part of the WFAE newsroom since 2013, when he began as an intern. His reporting helped the station earn an Edward R. Murrow award for breaking news coverage following the Keith Scott shooting and protests in September 2016. More recently, he's been reporting on food, culture, transportation, immigration, and even the paranormal on the FAQ City podcast. He grew up in Charlotte, graduated from Myers Park High, and received his degree in journalism from Emerson College in Boston. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal