Uber-like service in the works for Westport train stations
WESTPORT — A new transit service app is looking to make residents’ rides to the train station quicker and more efficient.
Called “Wheels2U,” the microtransit, ride-share program allows users to request transportation from within designated boundaries. With the app’s recent success in Norwalk, Westport is tentatively looking to run a pilot program in August.
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“Microtransit is a new thing within the public transit industry. ... We’ve been studying it pretty carefully,” Westport Transit Director Marty Fox said. “We’ve been thinking there may be a good application in Westport to effectively replace some or all of our shuttle routes with microtransit.”
Microtransit, which focuses on an on-demand group ride service, provides advantages for riders over the current fixed routes of shuttles, he said.
Currently, fixed routes can make some riders experience a longer trip due to a shuttles driving an entire route before stopping at the train station.
“Instead of operating fixed routes in the morning and evening, people would call it up, just like an Uber and Lyft, and the buses would only go where the people needed to go,” Fox said. “There is the potential to make it a shorter ride for some people.”
Fares for Wheels2U would match the commuter shuttle fares in Westport — a single trip is $1.75, or $0.85 for seniors and those with disabilities, paid by cash, tokens or a 10-trip card.
“Right now we’re convenient to about 60 percent of the town,” he said. “This could allow us to increase that.”
For now, the pilot program will start with shuttles that stop at the Greens Farms Train Station.
“Our thought is we would do this for some period of time in Greens Farms,” Fox said. “If it works well we would roll it out from east to west.”
Early analysis predicts if the app covered all commuter shuttles in town, it could be more efficient, Fox said, and allow shuttles to cover more specfic train times and a larger geographic area.
“In the longer term, once fully implemented, it should be cheaper for us,” he said, noting Westport has the advantage of Norwalk Transit already implementing the program.
Kim Morton, chief executive officer of the Norwalk Transit District, said the city started the service as a pilot program in 2018. Norwalk residents can request a ride anywhere in a 3-square-mile area, including the train stations and downtown, on Thursdays through Saturdays from 5 p.m. to midnight and on Sunday from noon to 9 p.m.
Since the program has been formally implemented, the city has seen a steady ridership increase, with app users growing from 250 riders to nearly 600 each week. Morton sees the app being a similar success in Westport.
“I really believe the face of public transit is changing in our communities,” Morton said. “As leaders in the industry, we need to really embrace technology and innovation that’s available to us, and rethink how we’re going to deliver public transportation to meet the expectations of our customers today and our customers tomorrow.”
Whether or not the app sees the light of day in Westport could depend entirely on the transit district receiving funding in this year’s budget. Last year, the Board of Finance elected to cut funding, but the Representative Town Meeting unanimously voted to restore the funds thanks to RTM Transit Committee Chair Peter Gold.
While the app’s future in Westport remains to be seen, Gold said he’s always open to improving transit for residents.
“It would be more than welcomed,” he said of the app. “Anything we can do to improve transit in this town, give people more options and help relieve some of the tragic ingestion we’re facing is good.”
Includes prior reporting by Jim Cameron