Ozark Regional Transit to start Uber-like bus service in Rogers without fare

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 3,931 views 

Springdale-based transit provider Ozark Regional Transit (ORT) will launch a new service in Rogers that’s been described as the Uber for public transit.

ORT announced Wednesday (Jan. 14) that On-Demand Transit service will start Monday (Jan. 20) in Rogers, and passengers can ride without a fare. The transit provider also announced a new route in Rogers between downtown and the Pinnacle Hills area, and it also will start Monday and require no fare.

Rogers will be the second U.S. city to receive On-Demand Transit service and the first to offer it without a fare, said Jeff Hatley, mobility manager and public information officer for ORT. Passengers in Rogers and Springdale can ride ORT buses for free for 2020, and Fayetteville passengers have been able to ride the buses without a fare since summer 2018.

“We expect ridership to explode in Rogers once we get the word out, and people learn how to use the system,” Hatley said. Plans have yet to be made to expand the service to other cities, but if it is successful, “the numbers will be very compelling,” he added.

Passengers in Rogers can access the new service using a smartphone app developed by Canada-based transit technology company Pantonium. The service allows passengers to schedule trips from bus stop to bus stop using the app, a computer or by calling the ORT office. The service will be available Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., excluding holidays.

Once a trip is scheduled, passengers will be notified on their smartphone or computer about the buses’ estimated time of arrival at their stop. Those who call to schedule service will receive a verbal estimated time of arrival. The goal of the service is to take passengers to their destination within 15 to 20 minutes, Hatley said. Initially, the service is expected to be provided using one of its smaller buses as ORT doesn’t expect great demand for the service immediately and passengers learn about it and how to use the system. Also, he said smaller buses have the ability to take more narrow roads and sharper corners.

“As passengers learn how to use the system and word gets out, we expect to bring the proper-sized vehicle to bear,” Hatley said. “That vehicle will, however, always be a bus and not a mini-van that we operate for other transit models. The reason being that only the buses have the digital marquees that will be used to reference the vehicle as the ‘On-Demand’ bus. Therefore, the smallest bus would be no smaller than an 18-passenger vehicle.” He noted that the transit provider’s largest buses can handle more than 40 passengers.

The new service will be available primarily along existing routes, but it will also provide service in previously unserved areas, such as the Scottsdale Center along Walnut Street and Walmart on Pleasant Crossing Boulevard, Hatley said. High demand areas for ridership could lead to the addition of more stops for the On-Demand Transit service or more fixed routes, he said. “One favorable aspect of public transit is that it can be changed, tweaked and constantly improved,” he added.

If no one requests to be picked up at an On-Demand Transit bus stop using the app, computer or by calling, the bus won’t stop there even if there are people standing at the stop. Hatley noted some On-Demand Transit bus stops are likely shared with the fixed-route bus stops, but the On-Demand Transit buses will have marquees designating them as such. Once a passenger schedules a pick-up, “with very little delay, the software prioritizes the ride on the list of rides presented on the [On-Demand Transit] bus driver’s tablet,” he said. “If several people across town are scheduling simultaneously, as is to be expected, the system will designate the optimal ride to schedule as the first pick-up and the driver proceeds. As others log-in their ride requests, the ‘optimal’ first pick-up could, theoretically, change and the driver could be diverted but only within the system’s parameters of overall optimization of service.”

For example, a passenger at the Walmart AMP requests a ride, and the bus driver at Frisco Station Mall begins to drive to complete the pick-up. Meanwhile, other passengers who are not along the way request rides. The system will designate those passengers as less of a priority. But if the driver receives requests from other passengers who are along the route, the system could divert the driver to pick them up first.

“[Passengers] will be provided a countdown on their phone to monitor the arrival time, and that countdown could change a bit,” Hatley said, noting the goal to provide service in 15 to 20 minutes. As demand for the service rises, a second bus might be required to maintain that level of service.

ORT also is working to change its existing routes in Rogers to improve frequency and boost ridership, he said. The new route between downtown Rogers and the Pinnacle Hills area will be designated as Route 54. It will start at South Second and West Elm streets in downtown. It will follow Walnut Street, Eighth Street, New Hope Road, South Hampton Place, South Bellview Road, South Promenade Boulevard, West Pauline Whitaker Parkway and South Pinnacle Hills Parkway before ending at Hunt Tower. The route returns to the start on the same streets.

For a PDF of the Route 54 map, click here.

“We are excited to offer these transportation opportunities for those residing in and visiting the city of Rogers for zero-fare,” Mayor Greg Hines said. “Our hope for this program is to provide our citizens with fast, safe and reliable access to work, meetings, shopping and events within the city and considering the buses will have bike racks, bicyclists will also be able to easily access all of our beautiful trail systems.”

Another ORT route that will change is Route 490, and it will be updated as a result of NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) moving its Washington County campus, which recently opened adjacent to Arvest Ballpark in Springdale. Also, Route 54 in Rogers will connect with Route 490, which runs along Interstate 49, between NWACC in Bentonville and the Northwest Arkansas Mall in Fayetteville.

Along with Route 490, ORT offers three fixed routes in Fayetteville, three in Springdale and two in Rogers and one in Bentonville.