Johnson County to pilot $250,000 micro-transit program in Overland Park, Merriam, Shawnee and Lenexa

Roxie Hammill - December 24, 2018 11:30 am
The Bridj microtransit project was not a success — but Johnson County will be piloting a similar initiative in 2019. Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company.

The Bridj van-hailing service that debuted with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority two years ago ended in failure because of low ridership. Eventually, the company closed down. Nevertheless, KCATA and Johnson County are willing to give micro-transit another shot, this time with a similar test program in parts of Overland Park, Merriam, Shawnee and Lenexa.

County commissioners on Thursday approved spending $250,000 on a six-month pilot program to see if it will eventually provide a viable and more sustainable alternative to the full-sized city buses that now serve the suburbs. This time around, the micro-transit service will be offered through Transloc, a company owned by Ford.

The pilot program is basically a ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft, except that large vans pick up riders instead of cars. Riders make arrangements on a Smartphone app or by calling a number. If, for instance, three riders appear to be headed to roughly the same place at the same time, a software program figures out the best route.

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There are some differences from other app-based services, though. Riders won’t necessarily be picked up at their front doors. Instead they may have to walk to a nearby corner. But Josh Powers, business liaison for the county, said efforts will be made to keep the pick-up points close and that there should be no more than a 15 minute wait time.

The program will be limited to three vehicles driving 14.5 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. weekdays in a service area between 63rd Street and 119th Street on the north and south and Metcalf Avenue and Renner Boulevard on the east and west. The fare will be $1.50.

It’s unclear whether the vans will have bike racks like city buses. The Ford vans used in the Bridj program did not.

The idea of making a ride-hailing service available in big vehicles is to make them more efficient. Services like Uber and Lyft compete with city buses for riders, but their critics say they have also added to the number of cars on the road and pollution in the air. In theory, grouping riders into vans would address that problem. Micro transit also has the potential to reach more areas of the county.

But early trials of other micro-transit programs have not always had resounding success and reviews have not always been kind. The Kansas City partnership with Bridj resulted in only 1,480 rides in a year, at a cost of $1.3 million for the pilot project. The city said that it was still a success because it identified who would use the service, according to a story in Wired magazine. Those riders tended to be younger and richer than riders in other services, the article said. [link: https://www.wired.com/2017/03/failed-experiment-still-future-public-transit/ ]

However, Streetsblog USA, a news site about transit issues, called micro transit efforts a “consistent, dismal failure,” saying they could not find evidence of any programs that were unqualified successes. Both stories mentioned Kansas City.

The Transloc program, which will go under the name RideKC Microtransit, will benefit from better route and ridership planning technology than Bridj had, Powers said.

And it will be unique. Other micro transit programs have mostly been done in cities where the population is less spread out, Powers said. Kansas City’s Bridj effort was mostly in Kansas City, with only a little bit of the service area touching Roeland Park. The new pilot will be the first time a micro transit company has tried to operate smack in the middle of the spread-out suburbs, Powers said.

The county is hoping for 120 riders a day and will give the service a robust marketing plan, said a company spokesman. With a successful test run and enough riders, the fixed route service could be reduced.

Commissioner Steve Klika, who has been a promoter of public transportation, said he hopes the service can become a viable alternative to full-sized buses. At an earlier meeting previewing the service, he said, “I just wish we were moving in this direction a lot sooner.”

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