Arlington transit program gets a plug at South by Southwest

SXSW South by Southwest Rideshare Via Arlington Texas West Sacramento California

(Video: City of Arlington)

AUSTIN - This doesn’t happen very often, but Arlington got a nod for its public transit – specifically, its Via rideshare program – at South by Southwest, the gigantic festival that celebrates innovation.

In a SXSW panel Monday about financial challenges facing Americans, called “In the Red: How Americans View the Economy,” Christopher Cabaldon, the mayor of West Sacramento, Calif., spoke at length about a ridesharing program the city launched in 2018 that’s increased residents’ access to services and jobs, cut their commute if they use West Sacramento’s bus service, and boosted time with their families. Data shows even wealthier families use the service, said Cabaldon, who plugged the Arlington program at the opening his remarks. Both cities use the company Via as a provider for the service. Arlington began its service in December 2017, demand has been robust, and the city has expanded it twice.

In both cities, riders pay a small fee to call up a shared ride in a Mercedes-Benz van. Beyond that, the West Sacramento and Arlington situations are largely dissimiliar, Cabaldon noted later in an interview. In West Sacramento’s case, the city has a bus service, and Via covers the entire city, filling the gaps. The bus network “has a couple of productive lines and mostly empty buses,” Cabaldon said. A private provider runs West Sacramento’s bus service. “For us, it’s relatively simple. We buy less bus service.”

West Sacramento’s population is only 50,000, but the city has a mix of urban, suburban, industrial and rural areas. “Our city, like most cities, is not laid out well for transit,” Cabaldon said.

Arlington’s population is nearly 400,000, and the city sprawls. Its residents have historically resisted public transit. The city has the Handitran service for people with disabilities, and its ongoing test of a driverless shuttle named Milo in the entertainment district has earned it plaudits. But the city has no bus service and no rail.

Arlington adopted Via as a pilot in December 2017. Via now covers one quarter of the city, a zone bounded by Lamar Boulevard, Texas 360, Interstate 20, and Fielder Road, and including the Trinity Railway Express CentrePort/DFW Airport Station. That includes the entertainment district, major medical facilities, and shopping districts like The Parks Arlington-anchored South Cooper Street.

Arlington City Council members and people in the community increasingly view Via as a key part of the solution to the city’s transit problem. Demand is strong, and Via doesn’t have the capital expense and potential albatross of ineffective bus service.

“We’ve got a lot of interest in providing Via as a citywide solution,” Alicia Winkelblech, the city’s senior officer of strategic initiatives, said in a phone interview Tuesday from her Arlington office.

There would be, of course, a cost. The city pays Via $1.8 million per year to run the rideshare, as currently offered. About $800,000 of that comes from Federal Transit Administration funds, and the remainder from the city’s general fund. It would cost about $8 million to provide Via citywide, Winkelblech said.

The city has no current plan to expand the service. “We are hoping we will be able to capture our Tarrant County College area” off of Texas 360 in Southeast Arlington,” Winkelblech said. “That’s our biggest key destination that’s not in the service area.”

Arlington’s Via service costs a flat $3 per trip, no matter the length, sharply lower than what another service like Uber or Lyft would charge. Passengers can use a smartphone app to order up the service. At Arlington’s request, Via added a dial option for Arlington residents who don’t own smartphones: 817-784-7382.

Riders share the ride with other passengers. The van may pick riders up and drop them off within a block to a block and a half of their desired pickup and dropoff spots. While a small inconvenience, that dramatically increases the efficiency of the service, keeping costs down, a point also made by West Sacramento’s mayor.

Arlington’s service has carried more than 134,000 passengers to date, and is now carrying 4,500 per week, Winkelblech said. It runs six days a week, and not on Sundays. Monday-Fridays, it runs between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. and carries 600-700 people per day. Saturdays, it runs 9 a.m.-9 p.m., with a high of 300 trips per day. In addition its standard vans, Via operates a fleet of wheelchair-accessible vans in Arlington.

“About 50 percent of the rides are starting or ending around the university/downtown area,” Winkelblech said. “We think we have a lot of people going to UTA.” Another sign that’s true occurs when UTA is on break; Via demand drops in that area of the city. About one quarter of rides start or end at CentrePort, making it the network’s most popular starting or stopping point.



(Video: West Sacramento, with Mayor Christopher Cabaldon)