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Norman, Okla., Explores On-Demand Transit Solutions

Norman, Okla., wants to improve accessibility of transportation for its residents, especially those with disabilities. One city councilor has suggested Via, a rideshare company that serves 500 U.S. cities.

The Via logo on the side of an on-demand transit vehicle.
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(TNS) — Norman is looking into one possible solution to its transit accessibility issues.

Over the last month, the Transcript has printed a series of stories focusing on accessibility issues with Norman's transportation options, particularly for residents with disabilities — all of which were discussed at June's Community Planning and Transportation Committee.

Less than month into his first term, Ward 3 Kelly Lynn proposed Norman should consider looking into Via Transportation Inc., an on-demand rideshare service headquartered in New York City that partners with cities across the country.

In fact, Lynn said Via reached out to him with plans to give a presentation on their services, and he passed it onto Norman City Manager Darrel Pyle.

"It's sounding more and more promising," he said. "If we're going to expand services, why don't we provide better service and save the city some money?"

The Transcript reached out to Pyle's office for comment regarding the proposal, but the city manager is currently out of town and no one from the city was able to confirm whether there is an ongoing conversation about Via.

Lynn's proposal, initially presented at the July 17 council retreat, drew interest from multiple other councilors interested in exploring the idea further. While councilors at the retreat proposed more discussion during future city committee meetings, other councilors declined to comment for this story, as the proposal is Lynn's idea.

Lynn referred his fellow councilors to Arlington, Texas, which has been a Via partner since December 2017. The city teamed up with Via to offer flat rate, on-demand rides that can be shared with other riders who happen to be on the same route. The Arlington service also has wheelchair-accessible vehicles, and can do curb-to-curb pickup and drop off.

"Overall, the feedback has been very positive," Ann Foss, principal planner with Arlington's Office of Strategic Initiatives, said about the city's partnership with Via. "I think people really appreciate that it is personalized and flexible. So, instead of having to walk to a bus station and wait maybe up to an hour for the next bus to come, people are able to book when and where they want to go."

Lynn said he did have some concerns regarding the difference in city limit size — Norman is 180 square miles, while Arlington is only 99 square miles.

Foss said Arlington started using Via in a small part of the city that included downtown, the area around the University of Texas at Arlington and the entertainment district where the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers play. She said they expanded incrementally over the last four years, and were eventually able to cover the entire city in January.

Before Via, Arlington did not have a traditional public transportation system in place; now the city has a fleet of 68 six-passenger vans, Foss said. Fares to ride Via range from $3 to $5, and Foss estimates the system sees an average of 1,500 rides per day.

"We're seeing people across the city using [Via] to get to school, work, medical appointments, shopping, recreation, all kinds of different uses," Foss said. "Also, 14 of the 68 vans in our fleet are wheelchair accessible, ADA-compliant vans. People can request those if they need them, and they will pick you up at your door."

Originally developed as a consumer rideshare service in 2013, Via quickly found out that municipalities weren't quite ready for the technology it had developed. But that hesitancy wouldn't last long.

"The goal was always to take our technology and work with cities directly, but in 2013 that wasn't an option," Via Chief Revenue Officer Dillon Twombly said. "I think most cities were either less excited about the technology or less willing to change on the network side. Since then, we've seen that on-demand service become an important piece of transit in cities. With that, we have seen growth, particularly post-pandemic, really explode."

Via now has partnerships with 500 cities in 38 countries, Twombly said, and early indications point toward Norman possibly being added to that list.

John High, a member of OK ADAPT and Progressive Independence who uses a wheelchair and has pushed for more accessible transit options, said he has not heard about Via, and if the news is true it could be a step in the right direction. But based on his experience dealing with the city, he believes nothing is going to come to fruition.

"This is the first I'm hearing anything about it," he said. "At this point, I don't believe anything that the city of Norman says about taking action. I'm hoping they do something, I just don't think it's going to happen."

©2021 The Norman Transcript, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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