The Gastonia City Council recently announced plans to phase out its fixed-route bus system in favor of a new microtransit system with the ability to reach more of Gastonia’s residents. Microtransit is comparable to current rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft.
In a press release, the city council stated that a 36-month, $1.65 million dollar first year contract was finalized with transportation service company River North Transit, LLC for an on-demand transit service for riders with the goal of establishing more convenient, efficient, and personalized transportation services.
“We saw a need to provide on-demand microtransit transportation to our residents as our city continues to grow,” Gastonia Mayor Richard Franks said in the press release. “This move away from fixed-route buses will provide cost savings and will increase accessibility for everyone in our community.”
In an interview with Carolina Journal, Randi Gates, who serves as the city’s Transportation Director, said the city has been weighing a change to its transportation system for several years.
“We’ve seen a lot of challenges currently with our fixed route system,” she said. “One is the limited-service area. Right now, we have six fixed routes. They’re not completely central to the city limits but we only cover about 21 square miles. Our city limit now is pushing close to 50 square miles, so with the fixed route system there is a very limited-service area not even covering half of our city limit. That was one current challenge we are facing. Another is the current fixed route system having hour long headways, which means the bus is only coming to a stop once every hour and so if you’re a rider and you’re trying to make an appointment or get to one place and back, you’re having to really think through what that looks like since the bus only comes once every hour.”
Gates also said there is a lack of riders on the buses and the buses themselves are outdated.
“We see, quite frankly, empty buses,” said Gates. “With our current ridership we see an average of seven riders an hour. So, you see a lot of big buses that are empty. We know that we’re not effectively reaching our population right now, so we’re thinking through that. We also have an aging fleet. A few of our buses are past what is considered a useful life, so we were going to be needing to purchase a few new buses in the very near future. As you can imagine, buses are not cheap.”
Going small to save big
Taking into account the current issues plaguing Gastonia’s fixed route system, Gates sees a lot of positives coming from the microtransit operation set to take effect on July 1.
“Microtransit is something that is now in a few communities across the state, so we looked into what other systems are doing and really felt like it was the right direction to go for public transportation within the city of Gastonia,” she said.
Benefits of the new system include easier scheduling, better accessibility and cost for riders, a larger service area, more cost-effective vehicles, and shorter wait times for a ride. The microtransit will be administered via cellular device app, web portal, and a call center, the latter of which benefits those who may not have a cellular device.
“We see the benefits of microtransit for our city and our residents,” Gates added. “You will be able to schedule a ride. You’ll use an app or there will be a web portal. We’re even going to have a call center because we know not everyone has a smart phone where they can download an app. If you have a recurring trip, you’d be able to go ahead and schedule it. It’s really about meeting the residents where they are and expanding the service area. When we transition to microtransit on July 1, 2024, we’re going to cover the entire city limit. You can be anywhere within the city of Gastonia, request a ride, and go anywhere else within the city limits that you need to go. That’s a huge benefit to our residents. Wait times will also be reduced. When you book a ride, you should be picked up within 15 minutes of booking that ride. We know time is precious, so the capability to be picked up in 15 minutes is also huge.”
As with any new, large-scale program. Gates and other city leaders are aware that not everyone may adapt well to change. In light of this, Gates said the city is fully prepared to educate residents and help them acclimate to the new system.
“We have full confidence that this will be successful,” said Gates. “Sure, will there be some growing pains? Maybe. Some people are reluctant to change, so we realize that as well. We plan on diving into an extensive marketing and education campaign in the next few months so we can meet with our current bus riders and talk through what this will look like for them. We’re excited about this and excited that we’re able to better serve our community.”
“My biggest concern is that people will not give these changes time to unfold and develop before forming final opinions,” said Dwayne Burks, Director of Gastonia-based non-profit The Gateway Gaston in an email to CJ. “Change can be difficult, but I am confident Randi and her team will roll out an exhaustive educational campaign to help us understand and appreciate public transit.”
Other Gastonia residents welcome the upcoming change to the city’s transportation apparatus.
Jonathan Fletcher, who has been a Gastonia resident since 2016 but is also a lifelong resident of Gaston County, told CJ in an emailed statement that he is pleased with the benefits the new microtransit will provide to Gastonia residents.
Fletcher also applauded Mayor Franks and the Gastonia City Council for their efforts in being fiscally responsible and helping taxpayers.
“The new system, if implemented as promised, should significantly reduce wait times for residents and increase efficiency,” said Fletcher. “The hope is that those things will also reduce costs. This change could also make the service more attractive to new users who already utilize other ride-share services because of their personalization and accessibility.”
“Taxpayers were on the hook for almost $15 per passenger over the last few years, with the charge for regular bus fare only $1.25,” he said. “It doesn’t take a math genius to see that that is fiscally irresponsible, especially after a couple years of “free” fares during the pandemic and many riders qualifying for reduced or free fares otherwise. Many residents have come to rely on that public transportation, so it is important to find a way to provide the service in a way that makes financial sense. I commend Mayor Franks and members of the Council for stepping outside the box to increase access and save taxpayer dollars.”