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Arizona Suburbs Shake Things Up With Microtransit Service

Three cities in the Phoenix metro area are experimenting with on-demand microtransit offerings, both connecting to more traditional transit options and stepping in where none exists.

An aerial view of the greater Phoenix, Ariz., region.
Three Arizona cities in the greater Phoenix region are collaborating on a more flexible public transit concept aimed at bridging some of the widening gaps facing the sector.

In recent years, changing commuter patterns, declining ridership across traditional modes and increased interest in on-demand microtransit have disrupted time-tested public transit models.

Goodyear, Avondale and Surprise are collaborating on an on-demand microtransit project known as WeRIDE. The coverage area across the three jurisdictions in Maricopa County stretches across some 49 square miles.

Like many microtransit operations, WeRIDE uses small van-like vehicles. Riders interact with the service largely through the WeRIDE app. Trips cost about $2, and since this is “shared” transportation, the rides may include other passengers.

"As we came out of COVID lockdown, transit needs and expectations evolved, mostly due to changes in travel patterns, perceptions and technology,” said Christine McMurdy, project management coordinator in Goodyear, Ariz. “This appeared to be an opportunity to explore more flexible alternatives to traditional fixed-route bus service, like microtransit.”

The region, which has a strong car focus, is sparsely served by fixed-route transit. A circulator called Zoom in Avondale, “was getting progressively expensive over the last few years and the ridership on the route was stagnant since COVID. The fare for the Zoom route was even reduced from 50 cents to free and that didn’t even help the ridership,” said Matthew Dudley, transit manager in Avondale. Complicating Zoom’s lack of appeal was its frequency — every 30 minutes.

The city was paying about $170 an hour to operate the service, Dudley said, with a ridership of about 130 passengers a month. Since the launch of WeRIDE, however, ridership has grown to 5,500 riders a month with an operational cost of $90 per hour, he noted.

In Goodyear, the service altered its hours of operation to better line up with regional transit connections coming into the city. The city of Surprise, meanwhile, had no fixed-route transit service, making the microtransit offering a new perk for its 149,000 residents.

“WeRIDE is giving residents of Surprise the option of being able to get to work, school or shopping for a very low cost,” said Kristen Taylor, business services administrator for Surprise, in an email. The project, which is still in its first year, is a two-year pilot in the city, funded with one-time general fund dollars.

“We are still collecting data to determine the feasibility of funding this with ongoing general plan dollars,” Taylor added.

WeRIDE is powered by transportation technology company RideCo which provides the platform for managing the passenger pickups and drop-offs and supporting the customer-facing app as well as data for internal operations.

Funding for the program comes from a number of sources ranging from dedicated transportation funding to the cities’ general fund.

Riders have clearly taken to the new microtransit system. In Goodyear, fewer than 500 people a month were using the service at the beginning of 2023. By the end of the year, the number had climbed to more than 3,200, according to data provided by the city. Similarly in Surprise, ridership started off at fewer than 400 riders in April 2023, climbing to more than 2,200 by the end of the year. And in Avondale, ridership started off at 1,288 passengers in July and by the end of December some 5,300 passengers had used the service.

The cost per passenger varied from month to month and from city to city. In April, when the service was just getting started in Surprise, it was costing the city $92.69 per ride. The cost per ride dropped to as low as $23.59 in August, with an average cost of $39.80 per ride.

In Avondale, the cost per ride is about $30 a person, said Dudley, adding that funding comes from a half-cent tax dedicated to services like transit, water and sewer.

“This service is cheaper than the previous circulator service that was being operated,” he added.

In Goodyear, the cost per trip started as high as $148 per trip, and dropped to as low as $36.16, according to the ridership data.

“Marketing is essential in order to keep cost per trip reasonable,” said McMurdy in an email. “However, the positive impact of daytime traffic to local businesses, services, jobs and afterschool activities cannot be understated.”
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.