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A Small Virginia City Is Ditching Traditional Transit

The small historic town of Winchester, Va., will soon phase out its fixed-route bus system for a dynamic on-demand system providing shorter wait and travel times, for the same cost.

Dan Hoffman, city manager for Winchester, Va., speaking at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo on Nov. 29 in the Washington, D.C., metro region, points out an example of how travel times will be shortened when the city switches to an on-demand microtransit system.
Skip Descant/Government Technology
A shift to a microtransit system will improve transportation times for riders, getting them to the places that matter quicker, say city leaders.

“We’re changing all of our performance metrics for public transit,” remarked Dan Hoffman, city manager for Winchester, Va., a small community in the Shenandoah Valley, as he pointed to paying less attention to some of transit’s more typical metrics like ridership or the length of time between buses.

Winchester, a small city of 30,000 tucked onto only 9.3 square miles, is phasing out its city-run fixed-route transit network for an entirely on-demand system using smaller vehicles. Via, a transit technology platform, will provide the technology used to link up vehicles with riders.

“We’ll start measuring it in terms of what is the cost to get to food? What is the cost to get to school? What is the cost to get to employment?” said Hoffman, a former chief innovation officer for Montgomery County, Md., during a Nov. 29 panel at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo.

A key selling point for the transition is the ability to cut wait and travel times for riders. Today, riders wait about 70 minutes between buses. With a new on-demand dynamic system, that wait time shrinks to about 10 minutes.

A trip to Walmart from the center section of town, out to the store’s location on the outskirts, is an 84-minute trip today. The new system will get this travel down to about 16 minutes.

“So suddenly, a rider of choice … this becomes a much more of a viable option,” said Hoffman.

Moves to a citywide dynamic microtransit system will make transit a more viable mobility option for the 650 households with no car, and about a third of the households with only one car, suggesting about 30 percent of the population has “the potential need for transit,” said Hoffman.

It’s the kind of change that aids in workforce development by realistically getting workers to their jobs, and opens up access to fresh foods and shopping opportunities.

“Opening grocery markets, in whatever way possible, basically creates more customers,” said Heather Arnold, senior manager for Economic Development for Physical Stores at Amazon, speaking on the panel. “What if we had better ways to get customers to the store?”

Often, said Arnold, the market forces needed to develop a grocery store in many neighborhoods do not exist, given the cost of the development and revenue requirements. So, if cities can find ways to make it easier to get residents to the stores they already have, “food deserts” could be mitigated.

“You cannot make a risky move that fails. You just can’t,” said Arnold, remarking on the idea of building a new store, given the narrow profit margins for grocery stores.

The new transit system in Winchester goes live this spring. Fares will be free at first, and then transition to about $1 per ride.

What riders care about, said Hoffman, is “how quickly can I get to the grocery store? And how much will it cost?”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.