Baton Rouge's bus agency is trying to get into the ride-sharing game with a program that staff described as "Uber-esque," only cheaper.
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The Capital Area Transit System has spent $25,000 to buy software and commission a study to explore how the "microtransit" concept will work, CEO Bill Deville said during a recent CATS committee meeting.
Vehicles should begin ferrying passengers within the next 90 days. They will roll out shortly after CATS switches over to new bus routes on Feb. 24. The change in routes emphasizes more service on popular lines while cutting less-used ones.
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During the six-month microtransit pilot phase, 10 vans with room for about 15 passengers each will begin serving areas off main routes and after-hours, Deville explained in an interview.
Riders can use an app to hail a ride in real time, and the driver will pick up and drop off more passengers along the way, similar to Uber Pool or a Lyft shared ride. Alternately, Deville said, the microtransit van could disembark riders at a bus hub.
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Staff will decide where and when to offer microtransit services during the pilot, but Deville said apartment complexes and areas with a lot of employers that are away from bus routes would be an obvious fit. Some vans may run after hours around the medical district or university campuses.
CATS will also have to decide how many vans to deploy. After the ten-month pilot, Deville said he'd like to keep at least five.
"This is a major — potentially — pilot project that could expand," CATS Board Chairman Jim Brandt said.
While the agency has bought the dispatch software, staff expects to hire contractors to provide buses and drive the vans, said operations adviser Paul Toliver, who was brought in following the departure of former chief operations officer Rod Goldman.
The CATS board will have a chance to review the implementation plan once the pilot ends.
The software has been developed by the Ford-owned company TransLoc. A representative wrote in an email to Deville that the company expanded into 44 new bus agencies last year.
According to a presentation given to CATS, TransLoc will charge $500 per vehicle per month for service and support. The rate drops to $450 each if CATS scales up to six to ten vehicles.
Deville expects fares to be comparable with fixed bus routes.
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The new fixed bus routes will begin in late February. Staff decided to shutter 145 bus stops to focus on the most popular routes, so most remaining stops will be visited at least twice an hour. It's the biggest overhaul to the CATS system since the agency received new tax money and expanded service five years ago, Communications Director Amie McNaylor said.
As it did then, CATS is expected to offer a week-long fare holiday to encourage riders to try the new routes. McNaylor said CATS makes around $27,000 in fare each week, but Brandt said it would be worthwhile to forgo some revenue to publicize the new offerings.
The revised routes could also help with wait times. Board member Linda Perkins noted that CATS is only managing about 66 percent on-time performance, much lower than the agency's stated goal of 80 percent. CATS used to consider a bus on-time if it arrived within 10 minutes of schedule but has tightened to a five-minute window to better match its peer agencies.
CATS staffers hope the arrival of new, more reliable buses will help with performance but said the train crossings, traffic back-ups and construction detours that plague all Baton Rouge drivers jam up their operators, too.