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Federal Funding Helping to Boost Microtransit in Rural Areas

North Carolina has been awarded $10.4 million by the U.S. Department of Transportation to increase mobility and transportation options in rural areas, expanding the reach of innovative transit concepts like on-demand service.

Sample images of Wave Transit's RideMICRO app.
Sample images of Wave Transit's RideMICRO app.
Image courtesy of Wave Transit.
Small, rural transit agencies in North Carolina are moving forward with demand-response operations, a sign of transit’s evolution in serving low-density areas.

The North Carolina Transportation Department (NCDOT) has been awarded $10.4 million by the U.S. Department of Transportation to increase mobility and transportation options in rural areas. The funding, made possible by the Rural Surface Transportation grant program, will be used to further develop on-demand transit in five largely rural counties, as well as other communities like Sanford, Salisbury and Wilson.

“This is a historic achievement for Wave Transit,” remarked Marie Parker, executive director of the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority, which operates Wave Transit, serving the coastal region of Wilmington.

“This investment in our microtransit service in the Wilmington area could provide public transportation to corners of the community that are underserved or unserved,” she added via email.

Microtransit, or on-demand transit, operates much like app-based ride-hailing services Lyft and Uber — riders use an app to set up a pickup and drop-off destination. For those without access to a smartphone, a call-in line is available. The rides, which are often shared, are made using small transit vehicles. The federal funding will help to pay for technology, as well as the possible need for a private-sector operator.

"On-demand transit provides a more immediate option which may be more viable and useful for many residents with transportation barriers," said Aaron Moody, assistant director of communications at NCDOT, in an email.

When thinking about the future of public transit — as it continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns and loss of ridership — demand-response offerings will likely increase, said Audrey Denis, strategy manager at Cubic Transportation Systems. Denis also works to help the company understand how technology is evolving for agencies, cities and users of transit.

On-demand transit is often seen as a connector service to fixed-route bus and train lines, filling in those first- and last-mile gaps. It’s where technology providers like Cubic and others step in to make that transition seamless for both the rider and the agency, through new mobile ticketing and trip-planning platforms.

“The question is getting people in and out of that first-mile/last-mile to get to the transit routes. And I think that’s where it’s going to be really important for us to kind of evolve the interoperability of the mobility ecosystem and tie in those disparate modes,” Denis told Government Technology in a December 2022 interview.

The project in North Carolina is tentatively scheduled to start by early 2024 and last for three years, Moody said. The federal grant funding will require a match in the form of state and local funding.

The planned investment at Wave Transit will mean a “newly expanded system,” said Parker, adding additional service hours, vehicles and allowing the transit system to cover a wider service area.

“This will improve the quality of life for our residents by providing affordable, convenient and expanded public transit service access to essential services and economic opportunities,” she added.

Wave Transit has already experimented with on-demand microtransit with a pilot project begun about a year ago, funded by NCDOT. The pilot, known as RideMICRO, has experienced consistent growth, with an 800 percent increase in ridership since the launch, according to agency statistics. RideMICRO covers four zones spanning up and down the coast, as well as inland in areas outside of downtown.

It’s not yet known how much funding Wave Transit will receive from the federal grant. But the intent is to expand the RideMICRO service, said Parker.

“Should ours be enough, we will add vehicles, but the immediate plan is to add coverage area and service hours,” she explained.

NCDOT will be working closely with the participating communities and USDOT over the next several months to finalize the project scope, schedule and budget.

"We also will be working with each community to complete service planning and feasibility work, leading to final plans for service coverage areas, operating hours, fares, etc.," Moody said. "This will vary by community."

Today, Wave Transit’s annual ridership comes to nearly 528,000 riders on the fixed-route bus system; 141,500 riders on the network serving the University of North Carolina Wilmington; and more than 61,600 riders using microtransit and paratransit services.

Editor's note: This story was adjusted to include input from the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
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.

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