New London exploring Uber-like rideshare bus service

New London — The city is exploring the idea of an on-demand rideshare bus service offering door-to-door service in a manner much like Uber or Lyft.

The service would complement existing bus service.

The City Council on Monday authorized spending up to $25,000 to contract with TransLoc, Inc. for development of a so-called microtransit system to fit the city. As opposed to the Southeast Area Transit’s fixed bus routes, the system would give users the ability to call or use a phone app to hail a ride from a bus to and from anywhere in the city.

The Norwalk Transit District became the first in the state to introduce the program when it launched Wheels2U in September. TransLoc worked with the Centerbrook-based Estuary Transit District to launch XtraMile on May 6, serving an area that includes Old Saybrook, Westbrook and Centerbrook. Both transit districts are funded by the state Department of Transportation.

Rides would be free during the pilot period.

SEAT has contracted with TransLoc and expects to launch a service in Stonington in the fall as a likely replacement for a SEAT bus route with limited ridership and long waits, said SEAT General Manager Michael Carroll.

Mayor Michael Passero and Parking Director Carey Redd said it is too early to predict whether the idea is even feasible in the city and have agreed that participation from SEAT is needed. Passero said a microstransit system could reach more areas more quickly and likely increase use of public transportation.

“From an economic development standpoint, what it does is give people options besides your taxis, your Ubers and your fixed bus routes,” Passero said. “It gets more people using mass transit. There is a thought that the compact, dense urban environment in the city of New London … is the perfect setting for the system to work.”

Responding to skepticism among several councilors — Marty Olsen and John Satti in particular — Passero said he would only sign the contract if he thought it was feasible for the city. The money would go to help design the system. TransLoc’s contract with Norwalk shows the $25,000 covers things like software licenses, support, training, analysis and marketing.

“In a city with a major employer like Electric Boat, a Microtransit can act as the last mile connection from a transportation hub to EB’s research and development campus,” TransLoc’s Business Development Associate Dustin Peyton wrote in the company's proposal to the city. “Timely and affordable transit for residents and visitors to the city’s business districts, colleges and recreational amenities is important when factoring parking, traffic and accessibility."

Estuary Transit District runs the 9 Town Transit public bus service that began May 6, and Executive Director Joseph Comerford said it's catching on.

“We were looking at a way to serve our train station and provide service to people commuting. Two or three miles to the train station is not really walkable,” Comerford said.

The district looked at shuttles but ran into the problem of how to create a route that would efficiently cover the sprawling suburban area.

Comerford said the state Department of Transportation, which subsidizes the train and bus service, is providing funding for what is expected to be the $150,000 in operating costs over the six-month pilot period.

The 9 Town Transit is running just one bus currently but Comerford said it is gaining more riders on a weekly basis. The shuttles are equipped with wheelchair lifts and at least one regular passenger takes advantage of it.

Comerford said the DOT has been a great partner, making users of both Shoreline East and the CT Rides program aware of the new service.

The eight-passenger bus is making up to 25 trips per day in the first month and adding about five trips per day. About 53 percent of the trips come from the phone app, more than 40 percent are call-ins and the rest are walk up. When it’s not busy, the bus waits at the Old Saybrook train station and is open to all riders.

While free now, Comerford said he expects that rates will be comparable to a bus ride between $1.35 and $3.50 per trip. Future operating costs for the service will be based on ridership, how many buses will be needed and the number of hours the buses run.

Carroll said SEAT plans on working with the City of New London.

“We look forward to seeing if we can provide a more effective service in New London, maybe complement the fixed route,” he said.

SEAT receives 70 percent of its funding from the state and the rest through contributions from its nine member towns. New London budgeted $152,000 for SEAT in its latest budget.

g.smith@theday.com

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