WILSON, North Carolina — Less than a year ago, President Biden signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. $108 Billion of that is set aside for public transportation. Right now, 45% of Americans are without some form of public transportation.
Most people across the United States have likely never heard of Wilson, North Carolina, but there is a community similar to it in states across the country. About 50,000 people live in this town and nearly every single one of them has somewhere they need to go. Rodger Lentz is the assistant city manager of the town. Their transportation issues have been going on for years.
"Really when I got here in 2007, transportation was an issue like getting people to work or getting people essential services, the bus runs just once an hour," Lentz said. "Our bus system wasn't even connecting people to the highest paying jobs in the community."
However, all changed two years ago when they embraced a microtransit model; replacing their city buses with ride share type vans that can be ordered on an app or called through a number, and only cost $1.50 to go anywhere in the city.
"I mean by the fourth week we already matched what the buses were doing and now were approaching 4,000 trips every week," Lentz said.
As a driver, Kutina Winston hears stories from riders every day about the freedom and access this partnership with Via has given them.
"I mean everybody that we drive, that's the first thing they say, I am so glad that you all are in place because the buses were horrible," Winston said. "Yes we take people to the grocery store but mainly to work and doctors appointments."
Wilson used to have five fixed bus routes that ran once an hour. They only reached 40% of the city but now with Via they reach 100%. Cities with more than 100,000 people like Arlington Texas, Cape Coral Florida and Broken Arrow Oklahoma have had no public transportation but organizations like Via are trying to change that. Chris Snyder, the co-COO of Via, acknowledges this microtransit model is by no means meant to replace public transit in every city.
"45% of Americans basically have no access to public transit, so it's sort of an equity issue," Snyder said. "There is one New York city in the country, there are thousands of Wilsons."
The idea is to keep what's working while also filling the necessary gaps. In Wilson that meant access.
"The question was how can we do more with the same budget and how can we expand access to many more people into a bigger part of the cities," Snyder said.
In a place like Jersey City, the problems were very different because of the expansive, successful transit systems in place.
"And the question was really more about how do we get people to that kind of core backbone of the public transit infrastructure which we need to enhance," Snyder said.
Via is now in over 600 cities across the world, providing individualized solutions to each city's transit needs.
"This was a blessing to Wilson and I know it can be a blessing to other cities and states as well," Winston said.
This concept is meant to be integrated into public transportation, keeping the systems affordable and equitable.