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'A really good start': Albemarle's microtransit service posts strong ridership numbers

Albemarle County’s free, on-demand transit service, still in its pilot stage, is off to a strong start.

Seven weeks since its inception, the Charlottesville Area Transit’s MicroCAT fleet of six vans has provided more than 1,000 rides to riders traveling within Pantops and the U.S. 29 corridor.

The first week the program launched it completed 142 rides. But now MicroCAT is up to 364 rides per week.

County officials say those are promising results, especially considering the county has not yet even started to advertise the program, which is essentially a public ride-hailing service similar to Uber or Lyft.

“People who are taking advantage of it are very happy,” Garland Williams, director of CAT, told The Daily Progress. “Most are giving us feedback like, ‘It’s made my trip to the grocery store more convenient’ or ‘I was able to connect and go from Pantops to Target.”

The MicroCAT service operates from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and is free of charge. People can order rides by downloading the MicroCAT app or calling (434) 442-2466 to schedule a pickup.

It’s designed to help cover regions of the county that are underserved by public transit, allowing people to connect to bus stops or take them directly to certain destinations. Popular destinations thus far have included Target, Walmart, Rio Hill Shopping Center, Fashion Square and Pantops Shopping Center.

“This new low-emission pilot program will improve public options in Albemarle County with technology to expand access to flexible, equitable and sustainable transportation,” Donna Price, chair of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, told a crowd at the program’s ribbon cutting back in October.

So far, people are taking advantage of the new public transit option at a good rate. In total, there have been 1,347 total ride requests, and the county has been able to carry 97.8% of passengers that have requested a ride. A few rides could not be granted because the destinations were outside zones currently offered as part of the pilot program: Pantops and U.S. 29.

“We consider 100 riders per day to be the baseline goal,” Williams said. “But we’re confident we’ll be able to exceed that once the advertising campaign starts.”

That advertising campaign is still in the works, but in the meantime, Williams expects the program to become more efficient as it completes more rides.

MicroCAT is made possible through Via, which calls itself a "TransitTech" company. When someone orders a ride through MicroCAT, Via’s algorithm matches them with other people who are traveling a similar route. Because the program is still in its infancy, the algorithm hasn’t completed many trips and is still learning the best routes to navigate the Charlottesville area. Once it does, drivers will be able to travel between destinations more efficiently.

So while the total driving hours peaked at 293 and has since dropped to 248.5, Williams said that decrease is not due to decreased demand. People are still taking advantage of the free rides, and now that the algorithm is becoming more efficient, those riders are able to get to and from their destinations in less time than before.

That will also make the program more climate-friendly, one of the key objectives of MicroCAT. By offering Albemarle additional public transit options, county officials have said they hope less people will use personal vehicles to complete certain trips. Instead, they can use MicroCAT or the regular CAT bus system.

“Everyone in this crowd knows that public transport can reduce pollution by between 30 to 75% over privately owned vehicles,” Price said at the October ribbon-cutting. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re supporting operations like this.”

Fellow Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley, whose Rivanna District includes Pantops and straddles part of U.S. 29, also attended that opening event. Two months later, she’s pleased with the early success of the program.

“I think the fact that the number has basically doubled in a week is very encouraging, and people are now realizing that this is an alternative to Lyft or Uber but it’s free and convenient,” she told The Daily Progress. “We definitely expect it to increase, and we’d like to get numbers up to 600 rides per week. It looks like we’re off to a really good start.”


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