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Door-to-door bus service coming to New London

New London — Two years after proposing the idea, the city is prepared to pilot a new Smart Ride system next month, an on-demand public transportation or microtransit service that is eventually expected to replace existing bus routes.

The service is similar to what someone could expect from a ride-hailing service like Uber, but with an estimated $1.75 per ride fare on a 12-seat mini-bus or van. The $1.75 proposed fare is what it costs now to ride a bus in the city. Riders will be able to use a computer or download an app and use a cellphone to call for service.

“We want an individual to be able to pick up a phone and have immediate affordable transportation to their destination. That’s the goal of this system,” New London Parking Director Carey Redd said.

The service is scheduled to start Oct. 18, with more information about how to access the service forthcoming.

The initiative is the result of a partnership between the city and Southeast Area Transit District, or SEAT, which operates three daytime bus routes in the city.

For now, the traditional bus routes will remain in place and Redd said ridership will be evaluated throughout the pilot period to fine-tune the program.

He envisions ridership will grow beyond the number of people riding buses now. Up to 500 people a day take a SEAT bus ride in the city but there are others who don’t traditionally use the bus because a bus stop is not easily accessible, for instance.

In addition to those individuals without transportation of their own, such as college students and seniors in need of rides to go grocery shopping or visit their doctor, Redd said he expects ridership by others who may opt to leave their vehicles at home if they know they can get door-to-door service. 

There are also those people who might decide to use the service simply to visit a downtown New London restaurant without the need to take their car out of the garage, he said. This might be particularly useful during inclement winter weather.

While the mini-buses will stay within city limits, they can connect to the regular fixed bus route that has stops in places like Norwich, Waterford, Mohegan Sun or Foxwood Casino. SEAT has a bus hub on Water Street near Union Station.

Smart Ride initially will run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in New London but times could be altered to coincide with the need. Redd said the city could explore the idea of offering later rides for people coming home from late-night entertainment venues such as the Garde Arts Center.

Microtransit or demand-response bus services have begun sprouting up in other municipalities like Old Saybrook, Norwalk and more recently Stonington, where SEAT is operating a SEAT HOP service. Mayor Michael Passero said the city paid SEAT $155,821 this year for bus services that have been shown to be underutilized. The city, with the addition service, will pay $11,941 more, funded by the Parking Authority.

The City Council in 2019 additionally approved spending $25,000 to contract with Transloc Inc. for development of the app software and services related to the system.

SEAT General Manager Michael Carroll said the pilot program will demonstrate what the need is and how many buses will be used in the city. He expects three or four buses initially with room for expansion.

Running both the fixed route buses and small buses together would be unsustainable in the long run under SEAT’s current budget. Carroll said 70% of SEAT’s operational budget is funded by the state and 9% from its nine participating municipalities. SEAT received federal pandemic funding to offset declines in ridership and fare revenues over the past year. He said municipalities can choose to offer lower fares but would have to subsidize any extra operational costs incurred.

g.smith@theday.com

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