In microtransit test, some rural Virginians can now order bus rides through an app

By: - June 29, 2021 12:01 am
Mountain Empire Transit's new METGo! servce will cover an 11-square-mile zone that includes UVA Wise and the city of Norton. (Photo courtesy of Mountain Empire Transit)

Mountain Empire Transit’s new METGo! servce will cover an 11-square-mile zone that includes UVA Wise and the city of Norton. (Photo courtesy of Mountain Empire Transit)

Residents of two rural Virginia counties who don’t have an easy way to get around are gaining more flexibility to order up a ride from an app.

But instead of getting transportation through ride-sharing platforms like Uber or Lyft, which aren’t always an option in sparsely populated areas, the app will connect them to small buses operated by local transit agencies.

Gloucester and Wise counties will be the first localities to test out the technology under the first microtransit pilot program in Virginia. The 18-month program will rely on vehicles and drivers already in operation through Mountain Empire Transit in Southwest Virginia and Bay Transit, which serves the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.

The buses won’t follow fixed routes or schedules, but will instead adapt based on requests from riders who might be carless, elderly or unable to drive because of a disability or medical condition.

“In areas where there is less density but you have more need in the community, these on-demand zones where you can do microtransit really have a way to reach the rider in a way we haven’t been able to before,” said Jennifer DeBruhl, chief of public transportation for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Many local transit agencies already offer some form of on-demand service, though passengers typically have to call a phone number at least a day in advance to schedule a pickup. Under the test system, users will be able to schedule same-day trips and can probably expect to be picked up in a matter of minutes, not hours. 

The exact wait times won’t be known until the services are up and running and will likely vary based on time of day, the number of vehicles each agency has in operation and rider demand.

“It wouldn’t be necessarily like an Uber or a Lyft where they just pick you up,” DeBruhl said. “But they’re looking at all the requests and that software system is dynamically scheduling all of the requests.”

The new test program will run on technology from New York-based microtransit company Via Transportation. Most of the roughly $228,000 in federal and state funding for the pilot program will cover the costs of Via’s software. 

The powerful technology directs passengers to a nearby corner — a virtual bus stop — for pick up and drop off, allowing for quick and efficient shared trips without lengthy detours or conventional fixed routes and schedules,” DRPT said in a news release announcing Monday’s launch of the initiative. “The service zones were specifically targeted to provide affordable and efficient transportation for high-need and underserved communities — areas not served by other on-demand transportation services like Uber and Lyft.” 

Bay Transit riders will be charged $2 per ride for the new Bay Transit Express service. Mountain Empire Transit’s METGo! service will be free.

Both transit agencies are affiliated with local organizations that offer services for the elderly, but their transportation options are open to all ages.

Trips scheduled under the new technology will be short. Bay Transit Express will focus on the Gloucester Courthouse area, a hub of grocery stores, medical facilities and big retailers like Walmart and Lowe’s. In far Southwest Virginia, MetGo! will cover an 11-square-mile area that includes the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and the small city of Norton.

Mountain Empire Transit Director Mitch Elliott said he hopes the more convenient service will appeal to both carless college students wanting to get to the area’s supersized Walmart and elderly people who need transportation to medical appointments.

“It’s a real big deal for us as far as getting people where they need to go,” Elliott said in an interview.

As far Southwest Virginia tries to attract new employers to replace the fading coal industry, Elliott said, transportation is often one of the first topics companies bring up.

“In our area, we have to innovate to survive,” Elliott said. “So innovation is nothing new to us.”

The pilot is being funded through a $160,000 Integrated Mobility Innovation grant from the Federal Transit Administration and $68,000 in matching state money from Virginia’s Innovation and Technology Transportation Fund.

“The cost is very low because we’re really just having to support this new technology that they haven’t had before,” DeBruhl said.

State officials said the pilot will be a “proof of concept” for how on-demand transportation can be extended to rural Virginia, but other microtransit initiatives are in the works in more urban areas.

DRPT announced it is also partnering with Blacksburg Transit and Hampton Roads Transit on other microtransit concepts still under development.

“We expect to see them coming online within the next year,”  DeBruhl said.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]