What if public transit was like Uber? A small N.C. city ended its bus service to find out

  • Date: 09/16/2023

In 2020 Wilson, NC abruptly parked all its buses to launch a publicly subsidized van service offering $1.50 trips anywhere in town. Wilson landed federal and state infrastructure grants to support the shared, public rides residents summon — usually within 15 minutes — through a service operating like Uber and Lyft, but at a fraction of the cost to riders. Trips are now $2.50, a dollar more than they were at launch.

These smaller-scale, tech-based solutions to public transportation problems, known broadly as microtransit, have emerged as a great equalizer in the battle for infrastructure dollars that has traditionally pit the bus, train and subway needs of urban areas against the road construction projects sought by rural communities.

Ryan Brumfield, director of the North Carolina Department of Transportation's integrated mobility division, said Wilson’s transition to microtransit came largely by necessity. Officials seeking to lower Wilson's unemployment rate first had to address the fact that in some pockets of the 23-square-mile city, as many as 3 in 10 residents lacked access to a car to get to work.

More than half the rides are for residents using the vans to “maintain or get employment,” said Rodger Lentz, Wilson’s assistant city manager who pushed for the switch.

Wilson partnered with New York-based Via, one of the nation’s top microtransit companies, to create the software and launch the on-demand public van service known as RIDE.

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