(Photo by Elvert Barnes with Creative Commons license)
When you think of public transportation, you may not think a lot about places like Georgetown in rural Sussex County.
But DART has a unique presence in the town, which is a Delaware employment hub as the home of the Perdue plant and other manufacturing and agricultural jobs. There are three fixed-route bus lines and two reservation systems — paratransit, for people with mobility impairments and disabilities, and a flex route, where riders can request a stop up to one mile off of the regular route in advance.
Georgetown falls into two categories that make a strong, accessible public transit system vital to the quality of life of its residents: It’s rural, and it’s an Opportunity Zone, defined as an economically distressed community that may qualify for investment tax advantages. Demographically, Georgetown is about 30% Latino — about three times the Latinx population of Wilmington — and about 15% Black.
Six percent of Georgetown households have no access to a car. That’s a low percentage compared to urban areas with robust public transit, but in human terms, it’s hundreds of people who lack access to personal transportation for work, necessary errands or school; Delaware State University, Wilmington University and Delaware Tech Community College all have Georgetown campuses. As a result, many rely taxis and app-based car services like Uber, an expensive alternative to DART that cuts into people’s paychecks.
A big issue for public transit in rural areas is something called “headway” in industry jargon.
“The current landscape is that often times the [bus route] frequency is not there, so some of the buses have long headway, or frequency intervals,” said Veronica Vanterpool, chief innovation officer for DART. Locally, that might be one-and-a-half to three hours between buses. “That doesn’t work for many people, So we’re trying to really fill in the transit gap.”
"How do we strengthen the Georgetown economy and make it an economy that's accessible to everyone? It's an issue of equity."
The proposed solution, for which Delaware Transit Corporation was recently awarded a grant from the Federal Transit Administration, is a microtransit program called AIM, or Accelerating Innovative Mobility. AIM will use small-scale transportation, including vans, cutaway buses (the smaller buses used for paratransit), taxis and even Uber and Lyft drivers who are registered with the Office of Public Carriers.
The centerpiece of AIM is the technology that’s currently being developed in a partnership with Via Transportation, Inc., a company that operates microtransit services all over the world.
“There are four buckets: buses, paratransit vehicles, third-party cutaway buses and taxicabs,” said Vanterpool. “Let’s say you live in Georgetown and the nearest bust stop to you is about half a mile away, but to get to it you would have to cross a very busy roadway, making it less accessible. If you participated in the pilot you would open the app and the app would show that if you want to, say, go to the Perdue plant from home, there is a vehicle that is making a drop off at your neighbor’s house about three houses away. The vehicle will meet you there and bring you to the nearest bus that is leaving closest to your time to get you to the Perdue plant.”
Users will be able to set up rides via the app, similar to Uber — but, for accessibility’s sake, people can also set up rides by phone.
“We don’t want this service to be available only to people with a smartphone,” said Vanterpool. “We know that with Georgetown being an Opportunity Zone, is has a significant concentration of low-income residents, and we want to ensure that they have access to this new mobility service as well.”
Fares for the AIM program are yet to be set, but Vanterpool said the program hopes to keep them in line with regular bus fares — making it far less expensive than an app ride service, even if it winds up being a bit more than a fixed-route bus.
Affordability, accessibility and equity are the basis of the project.
“From an equity perspective, you can’t have a just, sustainable society without insuring that people have mobility options that are affordable and accessible,” Vanterpool said. “Transit is incredibly important to knitting our communities together. Georgetown is such a key employment, social services and medical hub, with agriculture and manufacturing and Beebe Hospital nearby in Lewes. How do we strengthen the Georgetown economy and make it an economy that’s accessible to everyone? That’s why I’m involved with transit, because for me it’s an issue of equity.”
The pilot is estimated to launch in late spring 2021 and will last for 12 months. In the meantime, DART is doing outreach, and looking for community partners, especially those that work with Sussex County veterans and older adults. If you’re interested in partnering, contact Vanterpool at Veronica.Vanterpool@delaware.gov.
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