PA: Red Rose Transit scales back plans for new on-demand shuttles

Dec. 26, 2023
Plans for on-demand microtransit shuttles, which were considered as a way to reach areas of the county currently lacking bus service, are now recommended only in the Columbia-Marietta area.

Dec. 21—On-demand shuttle service will be a smaller part of Red Rose Transit Authority's strategic plan than previously envisioned.

The latest draft recommendations for the strategic transit development plan focus instead on changes to existing routes. Plans for on-demand microtransit shuttles, which were considered as a way to reach areas of the county currently lacking bus service, are now recommended only in the Columbia-Marietta area.

The agency's head says it is trying to find a balance — continuing to provide quality service to long-established communities while serving a population that has spread into areas not traditionally served by bus service.

"Experts are looking at microtransit as, 'Hey, that might not be as efficient an option for our transportation dollars,' " said Greg Downing, executive director of the South Central Transit Authority, which oversees RRTA and Berks Area Regional Transportation Authority.

The transit development plan, in the works for almost a year, is scheduled for final acceptance in January or February by the SCTA board. The third and final round of meetings to gather public input to shape the plan took place earlier this month.

Created in conjunction between SCTA and Washington, D.C.-based consultant Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, the plan lays out recommendations for changes to bus service and a timeline for the agency to implement them. Accepting the plan doesn't mean routes will change. Any recommended service changes, including microtransit, would be proposed for adoption by the board — with input from riders — over the next five-plus years.

Microtransit shuttles

Microtransit was a big part of proposed changes unveiled over the summer. Other transit agencies have been deploying microtransit — which operates similar to ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft — in areas where riders are too spread out for traditional bus service. In parts of York County, Susquehanna Regional Transit Authority offers the service.

Foursquare's project manager, Boris Palchik, said the plans to adopt shuttles in different areas of Lancaster County faced opposition from riders and bus drivers who were surveyed at the time.

"We had to respond to the feedback we were getting," Palchik said.

The final draft recommendations include a single microtransit zone serving Columbia and Marietta. The Route 17 bus from Lancaster city would end in Columbia instead of its current destination in Marietta.

Downing said microtransit needs to be an effective use of the agency's resources.

Microtransit buses reach more destinations than buses, but they carry fewer riders. A microtransit bus transports about four to six people per hour, while the agency's least-used bus routes transport nine or more, according to data from SCTA.

There is funding available for pilot programs, which it plans to seek for the Columbia- Marietta zone, but once that runs out, the agency's microtransit and fixed-route buses would be competing for the same funding.

The decision to scale back microtransit disappointed Lancaster County Commissioner Ray D'Agostino, who on Dec. 6 attended one of the public meetings to collect feedback on the plan. D'Agostino said he wanted to see the agency adopt microtransit as a way to branch out from its existing service area and connect people and jobs in areas of the county that don't have bus service.

"You're essentially serving the same ridership right now. The question is, how do you use these public tax dollars to actually get more people off the roads they're driving now?" D'Agostino said.

The county provides about 3% of RRTA's $18 million annual operating budget.

Improving existing service

The final draft plans recommend making existing bus service more frequent, on routes that are more direct. They include getting routes on 30- and 60-minute intervals, making them more predictable for riders.

The streamlined routes have prompted concerns from some residents whose stops could be bypassed. SCTA says those residents will have a chance to weigh in before any changes to routes occur.

SCTA's ridership across Berks and Lancaster counties is currently about 82% of its pre-pandemic totals — which is better than many transit agencies nationwide. Many of them are serving smaller commuter populations due to remote work.

Downing said tweaks to existing routes can make riding the bus a more attractive alternative for people who also have the option of traveling by car.

"We really need to up the frequency," he said. "People would be more inclined to want to trust and take transit."

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