For years, Arlington had the unfortunate distinction of being the biggest American city without a public transportation system. That changed with the introduction of the Metro Arlington Express in 2013. However, the MAX bus and its single route never drew many riders, raising this awkwardly worded spin on the old thought experiment: if a city gets a bus and no one is there to ride it, does the city really have public transit?
The Arlington City Council voted earlier this month to scrap the MAX by the end of the year, to the consternation of its devotees, mostly UT Arlington students. But the city will still have public transit. Kind of.
Beginning Dec. 11, you’ll be able to get around Arlington via a ridesharing service, Via, that is being subsidized by the city for a one-year pilot project. The service operates up to 10 vans with room for six passengers apiece, and will run from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. Riders will use the Via app to summon a mini-shuttle, shared with other riders, to a nearby corner. Riders pay a $3 flat rate for each trip in the service area, which will at first include the TRE rail station near DFW Airport, downtown Arlington, Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital, and entertainment options in the eastern-central part of the city. The service area will later expand to include UTA and the Parks Mall.
This is, in the parlance of startups, what they call “microtransit.” Via is already in Chicago and New York, and similar companies have footprints in places like San Fransisco and Austin. Elsewhere, public transit agencies have struck up limited partnerships with ridesharing services. DART, for example, just launched a pilot program that enlists Lyft to supply first and last mile paratransit for elderly and disabled riders. Arlington, though, will be the first city in the country to convert its (admittedly very meager) mass transit completely into microtransit.
City officials are betting that Arlington residents will show more enthusiasm for rideshare than they have demonstrated for trains and buses, and that riders will choose Via over services like Uber and Lyft. The carpooling service does provide more flexibility than the fixed route followed by the MAX, and is less costly than the entirely private rideshare enterprises most North Texans are already familiar with. (The city of Arlington is paying for a third of this project’s $322,500 price tag, with a federal grant supplying the rest.)
There’s nothing to really measure it against, but city officials have said that the pilot program’s success will depend on how much it reduces “single-occupancy vehicle trips,” those particularly wasteful drives of one person in one car. Services like Via are not without their critics, and in cities with existing public transit infrastructure, Via should be a complement, not a replacement. Arlington is not that kind of city. Where before there was one bus route, now there is microtransit. As CityLab puts it:
No on-demand taxi (nor helicopter, nor boat) will replace the capacity and cost-efficiency of a full subway or fixed-route bus. Replenishing ridership on those modes requires investment, not forfeiture, say experts. Just last week, L.A. county announced that it will partner with Via to provide “first and last mile” connections to transit stations. Keeping these on-demand shuttles a complement to buses and trains, rather than a competitor, will take careful planning and monitoring.
But for a city like Arlington, where so little transit has been historically available, the question is more about what riders stand to gain than lose. A successful expansion of microtransit may very well build demand for fixed-route services in the future. And apart from drawing travelers out of private cars, Via may help unlock answers to questions that are puzzling transit agencies around the country. According to Jon McBride, a transportation consultant who formerly worked for Bridj, an advantage of on-demand mobility apps that is often overlooked is all the data on where passengers want to go—even when that trip isn’t served yet.
However this shakes out, for good or ill, it will prove instructive. DART, and agencies around the country, should pay attention.
Arlington will reevaluate its partnership with Via after year. In a press release announcing the City Council’s decision to fund the on-demand ridesharing service’s pilot program, Mayor Jeff Williams seemed to acknowledge the experimental nature of the program. “Via’s unique rideshare concept received tremendous support from our Transportation Advisory Committee and it is one of the first projects the committee recommended Arlington try as a near-term transportation solution,” he said in the statement.
The key phrase there is “near-term transportation solution.” As Arlington continues to invest in new stadiums and glitzy new “mixed use” entertainment districts, working to attract both more residents and visitors, the city will need to cough up some money for public transit. Via, as a starting point, is better than nothing.