Rock Region Metro is field testing a new service in southwest Little Rock. Metro Connect is what those in the transit industry call microtransit: an on-demand, short-range, ride-sharing service. Users can, via app or phone, arrange to be picked up in small vans and dropped off anywhere in a designated service area for the same price they would pay to ride a full-size bus.
Becca Green, Rock Region Metro's director of public engagement, said the organization will test the new service for six months, then decide if it's viable for central Arkansas. As part of the pilot program, the transit system has canceled its fixed route bus service for Route 9.
"The zone [of Metro Connect service] encompasses a lot of the places where Route 9 used to go and some places it didn't, which is key. So Parkview High School, the Sid McMath Library, the Shackleford Crossing Walmart, the Cottages, which is a residential center, those are some places within the zone," Green explained. "Some new places are the CARTI cancer center… and also anything on Aldersgate Road, including Camp Aldersgate."
Green said ADA-accessible vehicles are available for passengers with disabilities. Improving customer satisfaction was one of the key tests for the pilot program, she said. The standard wait time for passengers along Route 9 previously was 65 minutes.
"When you’re in an area known for historic low ridership, the expectation is not that we're going to measure by ridership, because we don't expect it to suddenly improve. The metric here is improving customer service. So we're going to be surveying our customers to see if they prefer this service to the service that they had before," said Green.
Rock Region Metro will also be evaluating the number of riders per revenue hour to decide whether or not to keep, and possibly expand microtransit in central Arkansas.
Experiments with microtransit in other cities have not been consistently successful. Bridj, a similar program in Kansas City, shut down in less than a year due to a lack of ridership. Transit services in several other cities are continuing to experiment, making changes to their programs based on observations from Bridj's failure.
Microtransit, when operated by a public utility, has the potential to be a less expensive alternative to ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft. Green says the cost for taking Metro Connect across its service area in southwest Little Rock is less than a third of the cost of an Uber ride over the same route. Opponents of microtransit argue fixed route services with large vehicles will always be the most cost effective.
According to Green, the Metro Connect field test will cost the organization $25,000, which Rock Region Metro funded internally. The pilot program will run through February 4, 2020.