Microtransit fall 2022

Microtransit, Conway’s first public transportation system, will launch Oct. 24, with free rides through Nov. 20.

Becca Green, Rock Region METRO’s director of public engagement, explained microtransit and the company’s plans in two public information meetings held at Conway City Hall Sept. 13-14. 

“It’s ride hailing, ride sharing, point-to-point accessible service that you can book through an app. It's ideal for areas of emerging or low transit demand,” Green said. “In this case, it would be emerging transit demand.”

The service will run two vehicles Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. allowing for 14 hours of service. Following the trial period, trips will cost $2 each. Green said this is one of the cheapest fares in comparable areas. 

All vehicles accommodate seven passengers, have bike racks and are wheelchair accessible.

Rides can be booked through the TransLoc app, which has a similar interface to other ride-sharing apps. Users without smartphones will have a dial-in option for booking rides.

“We are engaging in a somewhat familiar form of transit. Many people are familiar with ride-hailing and ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. This is not quite the same, but it's very similar,” Green said.

Unlike Uber or Lyft, METRO’s microtransit service does not have surge pricing, rather it will begin with a $2 flat fare. Green said that the fare may change in the future if demand increases.

“Once we get to 100 passenger trips per day, we'll want to reassess and adjust the service as necessary. There are two main ways you can do that. You can either add more vehicles, which we're already looking into or you can introduce what's called distance-based pricing,” Green said. 

Distance-based pricing would introduce higher fares for longer trips and shorter fairs for smaller distance trips, as compared to the current flat fare of $2 for any distance trip. 

Rides can be hailed from anywhere in the service area and have the expected benefit of smaller vehicles. 

“[Microtransit] offers more coverage than the fixed route service,” Green said. “it can go places where you can't take a 35 or 40-foot bus.”

The flexibility and low prices of the service make it accessible to students without cars, such as international students.

Phillip Bailey, associate vice president for global learning and engagement, said he hopes the service will benefit international students.

“I do think that UCA will create quite a bit of demand around campus, so I am hopeful that international students will find it a convenient option for getting about Conway,” Bailey said.

The Center for Global Learning and Engagement will advertise the service to students in their weekly newsletter during METRO’s free-ride period.

“I hope that the service will meet the needs of UCA students who do not have a car. Since they are only starting with two seven-passenger vans, travel times may be a little long, but I am very happy to see the $2 a ride price point,” Bailey said. 

International graduate student Karen Orozco said that the service makes Conway more accessible, “I believe both the demand and necessity of this service are being extremely underestimated. Bigger buses or vans that allow for more people to use them would be great. I know the entirety of the international student population in Conway has been desperately needing a reliable local transportation system that allows them the freedom to explore all the good things the Conway community has to offer.”

The program will be the first of its kind in the city.

Rock Region METRO, the state’s largest public transit agency, was granted Conway’s first federally funded public transit dollars.

Green said METRO is sitting on the funds, which are only for Conway.

“A couple of years ago after [Conway] passed 50,000 people in population it became its own urbanized area … which made it qualify for public transit dollars. [The funds] are resting with us but they are earmarked for Conway use only,” Green said.

The Conway City Council designated METRO as the recipient of the funds in 2018. Three years later in 2021, an agreement between the city and METRO was made to launch the program with one-time CARES Act Funds. Continued funding and expansion of the program will depend on the city of Conway.

“That funding will run out at some point. But then at that point, the city of Conway has access to what we call their regular 5307 or urbanized federal public transit dollars, and they will be able to use those dollars with a local match of money,” Green said. “But it will be a new budget line item that the city will come up with because they’ve never had public transit before.”

Mayor Bart Castleberry said its place in the city will depend on how much residents use it.

“Ever since Conway became eligible for its own federal public transit funding, we’ve been working on what type of service would best meet the needs of our residents and guests,” Castleberry said. “We’re taking small steps at a time to see how much Metro Connect will be used and how it will fit into the future of Conway. While we’re confident the program will be used by a number of people, the future of the program will be driven by demand.”

Further expansion of public transportation in Conway will have abundant data from the TransLoc app regarding demand, hot spots and popular travel times, Green said.

“The strongest traffic patterns in Conway are within the city … There wasn't a strong linkage, for example, between Little Rock and Conway. So that was interesting to see that most of the strong patterns are here within the city itself, which is good because it lends itself to a service like microtransit,” Green said. 

METRO said they will report to the city of Conway a few months after launch with their data and financial status.

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