A new form of public transit being tested in Johnson County may add Saturday service to pick up people going to the Overland Park Farmer’s Market this summer. City officials say a micro transit van route could help ease parking concerns as construction continues downtown.
The service might also help people in need get to the market, where their supplemental food assistance for fresh fruits and vegetables will go further, said County Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick.
The city council’s Community Development Committee members were enthusiastic during a meeting last week about exploring the addition of Saturday to the micro transit schedule being tested by the county as an alternative to fixed-route buses.
Since January, the county has been running a pilot program in a limited area with three large vans. The service is similar to Uber in that riders can hail the vans with a smartphone app or by calling. Riders meet the driver at a nearby corner and software chooses a route that works for other passengers going the same way. Rides cost $1.50.
The pilot program is scheduled to end in June, but there is interest on the commission to extend and perhaps expand it, based on the success it’s had so far. To date the service has provided 5,274 rides in less than six months and is projected to come in about $30,000 under its $250,000 budget, said Josh Powers, business liaison for the county. By comparison, a similar project between Kansas City and the now-defunct Bridj only served 1,480 rides up in a year, at a cost of $1.3 million.
Looking at expansion to Saturday service
The county’s micro transit program does not currently run on Saturdays, and the eastern edge of its service area is only a couple of blocks from the market. Still, Overland Park council members said they’d like to test the expansion before the market season is over.
“I think it would address some of the concerns about construction,” said Councilmember Curt Skoog. With the construction on the Edison project and other apartments close to downtown, parking during market days has been an ongoing concern for the neighborhood.
Council members also said the transit would help vulnerable populations, like those receiving food assistance and non-driving elderly, to get to the market. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) gives double credit on fresh produce at the market, Hanzlick said.
Councilmember David White added that the program could help older residents age in place. “We have an older population north of Interstate 435 that can afford to stay where they are but can’t drive anymore,” he said. “The challenge is they’re not necessarily technologically savvy.” So the program will need to continue to be accessible through older means of communication, he added.
County commissioners, who also heard a review of the program this week, have been increasingly positive on the idea of micro transit’s potential to replace the more-expensive fixed-route buses. There’s latent demand for more micro transit, Powers said, and commissioners expressed interest in continuing it past June and perhaps extending service to the Lenexa City Center, Children’s Mercy South and offices of the county department of Health and Environment, as well as the Farmer’s Market.
But Powers told them the $1.50 fare during the test period is not sustainable. In the future, he said, the $1.50 might remain the fare for people connecting to another bus route. But those who don’t could see fares rise to $3 to $5.