WHY DRIVE WHEN YOU CAN RIDE? | by Sydney Holmes
City leaders are scrambling to improve infrastructure and public transportation as Northwest Arkansas continues to become one of the top places to live in the U.S.
Not everyone has the luxury of a car and unless you live within walking distance from school or work without a vehicle, moving around the cities becomes a challenge. Residents rely on public transit and city officials have failed to provide accessible transportation.
Ozark Regional Transit is attempting to change and redefine public transportation in Northwest Arkansas. Their mission thrives to unify the community by providing zero fare transportation with wheelchair accessibility.
Seeing the need for conveyance in the community ORT was formed to provide safe, reliable, and affordable transportation to residents in Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville. The transit provides fixed-routes in Fayetteville and Springdale and on-demand transit in Fayetteville, Rogers, Bentonville and now Springdale .
ORT provides Complimentary Paratransit service to people who live within 3/4ths of a mile of a fixed-route bus stop and are unable to get to the stop. From there the wheelchair equipped buses have a lift or ramp ready to use to get you to your destination. There is also an option for wheel chair accessibility for on demand transit as well.
Currently ORT has nine paratransit buses/vans transporting about 50-75 riders a day with a disability as well as 1,000 riders in their system. Springdale resident Kasey Hodges has a physical disability called cerebral palsy, and her first time using public transit was using Ozark Regional Transit.
“I had a good experience with ORT overall. I was impressed with how many stops were available along my ride on the Fayetteville route and that the bus comes every 40 minutes. I also noticed that there were frequent riders, one being a wheelchair-user. The driver was very efficient in getting people on and off the bus,” said Hodges.
One issue she had was the bus did miss a few time slots. Hodges only recommendation for improvement would be for people who don’t have cell phones to have the bus schedules posted at the bus stops.
The feeling of independence that riders experience through public transportation is the mission of why this nonprofit materialized. Residents can move around the community without owning or operating a vehicle.
With limited funding Executive Director Joel Gardner knew they had to do something different and not just stick with fixed routes running in circles. Looking into other cities, on demand transit became a new form 5 years ago, ORT began developing and using on demand three years ago. After running with one version of their app for a year, in February 2022 a new partnership and algorithm was created, and their ridership skyrocketed.
The On-demand app created a unique way to provide simple acquirable transportation without the use of a fixed route schedule. Download the app ORT On Demand type in the pick-up location, how many people will be traveling, the desired destination and accept the ride. The app will select a van and the quickest route for your convenience. Through geolocation riders can track the drivers and are able call dispatch if any issues arise.
“It is not an individual taxi ride it is a shared ride based off of mapping, using algorithm, and based off of the constant and growing requests around you," said Gardner.
In terms of safety once the ride is accepted, a picture of what the bus driver looks like and what the bus should look like will pop up. With cameras in all the buses and geocoding, they will know what time you've been picked up and dropped off.
“As a woman I've ridden public transit in larger cities and because there's a lot of people that use them in bigger cities, I feel safer in a way. I was always scared to use it here but not for any nefarious reason other than I was just super unfamiliar with it. The first thing I asked from HR was what do the drivers go through before we put them on the bus and before they start driving,” said Executive Liaison Erika Finnestead.
There are multiple background and sex offender screening for all drivers. They also must pass random drug tests where they have 45 minutes from when they are given the test to when you have to be at the place to take the drug test. If the driver fails the test or refuses to take the test they are immediately terminated and will not touch a bus.
The negative connotation of public transportation remains a challenge that ORT needs to shift. Finnestead will continue to use the platform she is given to show NWA how it empowers and benefits the community. Her goal is to "rebrand the negative stigma around using public transit Northwest Arkansas, because I can see how it connects people."
As a nonprofit sustainability is a daily challenge. With the majority of funding coming from grants from either Walton Family Foundation or Federal Transport Administration, the cities need to see the demand and provide further funding. "We will always be here when you ask about sustainability. To me sustainability is 40 years, it isn’t 10,” said Gardner.
The plan for ORT, with suitable funding, is to be prepared and continue to provide transportation for Northwest Arkansas's fast-growing population by expanding the number of buses and routes. NWA has lots to offer in scenery, restaurants, and businesses. The cities need to provide appropriate transportation as ORT will continue to try and remain zero fare.
FOLLOW Ozark Regional Transit HERE
Check out ORT Website and Blog HERE
MEET THE AUTHOR | Sydney Holmes is a junior at the University of Arkansas studying Journalism and Political Science. She is the Spring 2023 VIP Intern for NWA Girl Gang.