A photo of a Via Transportation Inc. microtransit vehicle. The Capital Area Transit System is contracting with Via to bring microtransit to Baker by early next year. 

The future of mass transit in Baker will be rolling into town by early 2022. It’s not a bus or a train, but rather a fleet of minivans that will provide residents a service not unlike Uber.

The service, known as microtransit, will be a one-year pilot program, but officials with the Capital Area Transit System say it could continue beyond that and even expand to areas across Baton Rouge if it’s successful in Baker.

“It gives a lot more coverage, and it’s cheaper than having a big bus there,” said Cheri Soileau, CATS director of planning and program development. “It’s a pilot, so right now we’re seeing how it works, what makes sense and what we need to do because I suspect we’ll be using this in other parts of the city.”

New York City-based Via Transportation Inc., the contractor for the service, will supply drivers, three vehicles and access to its app that will allow people anywhere within the city limits of Baker to request a ride to any nine key locations in the area.

The cost of the service hasn’t been determined, but CATS officials say it will be on par with ridership fees across the rest of the system. And Soileau said residents without internet access will also be able to call to request a ride.

Baker’s Walmart, municipal offices and senior center will all be accessible to residents seeking a ride. A handful of other health care centers and businesses, including the Baton Rouge Airport and Southern University, will also be available destinations.

Baker Mayor Darnell Waites said he hopes the service will attract young adults accustomed to using Uber, as well as seniors who need a ride to a doctor’s appointment.

“Microtransit is going to push (Baker) to new heights,” Waites said. “It’s a new type of technology, a different concept that goes with the Millennials and how they move around and then the next generation after the Millennials. I think it’s going to fit right in with the fast-moving pace that they like to have, using that technology and getting from one place to the other.”

The key to the service is a drop-off at the CATS transfer center on the corner of Scotland and Swan avenues in North Baton Rouge, Soileau said.

The pilot will eventually work in conjunction with CATS’s bus rapid transit line that is under development along Plank Road.

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The microtransit connection to CATS’s main lines will give Baker residents easy access to the system’s fastest line to the heart of Baton Rouge, Waites said.

“That whole district along Plank Road where the transit center is going to be set is an economic development district,” he said. “We want it to have a feel like Government Street where they can come out and have fun. That microtransit will be dropping off people there from all over Baker.”

The official launch date will be set once CATS concludes contract negotiations with Via, although CATS officials estimated it would start in roughly five weeks.

The $910,000 contract will fund the service for one year with the option of two single-year renewals, Soileau said.

Microtransit appealed to CATS officials because of its cost-effectiveness, particularly in areas where it’s difficult to install an entirely new bus line.

Baker only has one bus line that runs south through Southern University to the main CATS terminal on Florida Boulevard, and expanding service by adding more bus routes doesn’t make sense for the town of 13,000 people, CATS CEO Bill Deville explained.

“With microtransit, you can go to neighborhoods that the buses can’t go into,” he said. “This is a good way to introduce transit to an area that is totally underserved.”

Cities across the country have launched their own microtransit programs in recent years, including Los Angeles and Houston. Baton Rouge’s system could see rapid growth if it’s deemed successful.

Officials with CATS will be watching to see what the demand is like in Baker for the service its first year and analyzing how riders use the service, Soileau said.

From there, CATS officials say microtransit could expand to LSU’s campus and the area around the Cortana Mall.

“It’s going to be huge,” Waites said. “I see microtransit becoming the future of not just Baker, but Central, Zachary and Baton Rouge.”