20 minutes Date Launched/Enacted: Sep 1, 2020 Date Published: April 17, 2023
This pilot project is part of the Mobility Innovation Collaborative (MIC) program, a partnership between the Shared-Use Mobility Center and the Federal Transit Administration. The MIC program provides a comprehensive suite of technical assistance resources, promotes knowledge sharing activities, and captures stories and lessons learned from nearly 50 innovative mobility projects across the United States.
Public transit services in American small and rural communities face various challenges today, including low population density, operator shortages, and limited or infrequent coverage. At the same time, these mobility services have become increasingly essential, especially for people who are aging, low-income, or experiencing disabilities. Problems like these demonstrate the need for transportation services to address mobility insecurity, a phenomenon where individuals lack access to adequate and reliable transportation. Wilson, a small city in eastern North Carolina, found itself navigating these exact challenges. With an underutilized bus system and high rates of poverty, the City of Wilson saw an opportunity to transition its fixed-route transit system into RIDE, an on-demand microtransit system. RIDE launched in September 2020 and, after successfully applying for an Accelerating Innovative Mobility (AIM) grant from the Federal Transit Administration, expanded its service hours both in the morning and evening.
Situated in eastern North Carolina, Wilson is a low-income community of about 31 square miles whose residents are predominantly people of color (48% Black and 11% Hispanic). With just under 50,000 residents, 21.3% of the city’s population lives below the poverty line, compared to 13.7% across the state.  11.6% of occupied housing units lack access to a vehicle compared to just 5.5% statewide, meaning that a larger proportion of residents depend on public transit or other transportation modes to address their needs. 
As a rural community, the City of Wilson operated a small six-route bus system until 2020 that only served about 40% of the city’s area, with headways up to an hour long.  Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, ridership on the bus system averaged about 1,450 trips per week. Seeing a need to expand public transportation beyond a geographically constrained bus system, the Wilson City Council voted to replace the fixed-route system with a microtransit serving the entire city in June 2020.  Two months later, the Federal Transit Administration awarded the City of Wilson a $250,000 Accelerating Innovative Mobility (AIM) grant to support the transition.  On September 1, 2020, as life was deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Wilson launched its newly minted on-demand microtransit service, calling it RIDE.
The premise of RIDE is simple: passengers can request shared van rides in real-time to and from anywhere within the boundaries of Wilson at a similar cost to riding a bus. Customers can book rides using the Via smartphone app, a Via-supported online portal, or a central dispatching phone line. Upon requesting their ride, customers are directed to meet the RIDE vehicle at a nearby location at an estimated pickup time. RIDE functions as a curb-to-curb service, meaning that the vehicles pick up and drop off customers within walking distance of their origins and destinations. The vans can carry up to four passengers at a time. RIDE operates from 5:30 AM to 7 PM during the work week and from 7 AM to 6 PM on Saturdays. Standard single-ride fares cost $2.50 plus $1 per additional rider in a passenger party. At first, the fare was just $1.50, but the City of Wilson increased the fare in mid-2022 due to high levels of demand, gas prices, and wages. Passengers under the age of 8 ride for free, and discounts are available for seniors and people with disabilities. Customers pay for their rides using the Via app; for those unbanked or without a credit card, the City of Wilson advises purchasing a pre-paid gift card, available at many retail stores throughout Wilson.
The City of Wilson procured Via as a turnkey service provider for RIDE. On top of serving as a booking, routing, and payment vendor, Via also oversees the staffing of drivers and the management of vehicles for RIDE. Drivers are directly employed through Via, and Via leases vehicles through VGM, a vendor that rents out vehicles for microtransit and ridehail services. Initially, Via partnered with a rental car company but transitioned to VGM due to supply and maintenance issues. Currently, the City of Wilson and Via have access to 20 vehicles for RIDE and have used up to 16 vehicles during periods of peak demand.
RIDE has seen a tremendous impact on how it serves Wilson residents. Going into the pandemic, the city’s fixed-route bus system averaged a ridership of about 1,450 rides per week. Ridership on RIDE has steadily increased since first starting; in early 2023, RIDE hit a weekly record of about 4,700 rides, more than tripling the use of fixed-route public transit across Wilson. RIDE has a goal wait time of up to 15 minutes after someone requests a pickup; due to demand, wait times have exceeded that sometimes and the service has adjusted its hours and vehicles in operation accordingly. The City of Wilson estimates that over half of the trips are for work commutes.  Notably, many customers are also low-income and have increasingly booked their rides using the smartphone app. When RIDE first launched, about 28% of customers requested their rides by phone. Now, only about 9% of customers use the phone to book their rides.
The City of Wilson has funded RIDE through different federal, state, and local sources, including:
Many of these one-time grants, except the federal earmark, have been depleted, and the City of Wilson has explored ongoing funding sources to support the continued operations of RIDE. While the City of Wilson, NCDOT, and FTA can direct some funds to RIDE on an ongoing basis through traditional transit sources, staff at the City of Wilson and elsewhere in North Carolina have advocated the state’s legislature to increase support for microtransit in suburban and rural areas to ensure that these services are sustainable.
RIDE was marketed through various traditional means, even though the microtransit service launched during the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of Wilson carried out various social media campaigns, posted laminated signs, and participated in interviews with local and regional newspapers to highlight RIDE. Riders have also received surveys through push notifications in the Via app. As a promotion, the City of Wilson also offered ten free first rides to customers when the microtransit service began operations. Riders were also invited to complete surveys through push notifications from the Via app.
RIDE has been widely commended for its impacts. In late 2020, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) recognized RIDE through its Innovation Initiative.  In August 2021, the Southeastern Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (SASHTO) gave RIDE America’s Transportation Award for Best Use of Innovation and Technology.  Wilson’s RIDE program won the American Planning Association’s 2021 APA-NC Advancing Equity Award.  NPR reported Wilson RIDE in a feature article discussing how microtransit can improve mobility choices in low-density areas.  RIDE is widely seen as a leading microtransit effort in the United States for how the program has been deployed and how it serves residents in Wilson. Employees at the City of Wilson have spoken about RIDE at various industry conferences, most recently at the South Carolina Rural Summit in March 2023.
Officials at the City of Wilson have found that RIDE is reaching community members in a way that its fixed-route system could not. Not only has overall ridership on public transit increased, but community members most in need of expanded mobility choices are using the service. As a result, RIDE appears to address equity concerns in Wilson’s transportation environment. In a 2022 survey of 91 RIDE customers, the City of Wilson found that:
In separate data collections and correspondences with RIDE customers, the City of Wilson has also learned that about half of the trips completed on the microtransit service are for work commutes.  Statistics like these demonstrate that RIDE is reducing mobility insecurity for customers and that this service is meeting a community need.
The City of Wilson has navigated various challenges for RIDE, including:
The City of Wilson is clear that RIDE is here to stay. Now that microtransit is a fixture in Wilson, staff and policymakers are focused on improving the service. Currently, the City of Wilson is considering expanding RIDE’s operating time to Sundays and nighttime shifts, helping customers working third shifts or running errands. Staff at the City of Wilson are collaborating with other city and state employees to advocate for the broader adoption of microtransit across North Carolina. In the future, the City of Wilson hopes that the State of North Carolina funds and assists with implementing microtransit in other suburban and rural communities, creating a solid transit ecosystem sensitive to the needs of low-density areas.
RIDE is widely considered a standard bearer for microtransit in the United States. Transit ridership in Wilson tripled, and now, the City of Wilson is looking to expand RIDE to serve people every day of the week at more times. Microtransit has grown, with several pilots and new programs deploying across North Carolina and elsewhere. While RIDE has been successful, the City of Wilson wants to be clear that this was the case because of Wilson’s geographic context as a small, low-income, rural community. Agencies must determine if microtransit is an appropriate solution for their communities when looking to expand shared mobility.