Starting in December, residents of some Birmingham neighborhoods will have a new transit option. The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve a six-month transportation pilot program with ridesharing company Via, funded in part by the city and in part by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.
The program will provide on-demand transportation using marked Mercedes Metris vans, which can be summoned online, through an 800 number or on a smartphone app. Each trip will have a flat fee of $1.50 per rider; the vans can accommodate six riders at one. The pilot program will cover a 6.7-mile area that includes parts of downtown Birmingham, along with western neighborhoods such as Smithfield, Graymont and College Hills.
The city will spend $250,000 on the program, an amount already approved for “future transit projects” in the FY 2020 budget. That $250,000 will be matched by the Community Foundation, which could also contribute an additional amount of up to $252,000.
District 1 Councilor Clinton Woods initially was the sole dissenting vote. District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt, parts of whose district are included in the pilot program’s service area, voted yes at first but changed his vote because “I don’t want (Woods) to be alone.”
District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, who heads the council’s transportation committee, said the council will receive monthly updates on the pilot program from Lakey Boyd, the deputy director of strategy and innovation for the city’s transportation department. Those presentations will include data about ridership “to try to ascertain how the service is being used.”
“Are people using this to get to medical facilities? Are they using it to get to government services, grocery stores, places of employment?” O’Quinn said, saying that the data would help shape how and whether the program expands. “We’ll be looking at that type of information … . I will say that we will have plenty of data to look at by the time we start the conversation about the next fiscal year’s budget.”
Ultimately, though, the barometer for whether the program is a success is simple: “It comes down to utilization and public feedback about the service,” O’Quinn said. “I feel pretty confident that, because of the combination of convenience and the price, that this is going to be something that’s pretty popular.”
The council’s approval of the pilot program comes on the heels of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority’s recent decision to increase fares and cut approximately 30% of its Birmingham routes starting in November. Those changes were made after the BJCTA announced it had miscalculated the amount it was charging the city of Birmingham and requested an additional $6.5 million per year in funding to continue service as-is, which Mayor Randall Woodfin rejected.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Woodfin told councilors that the Via pilot program should not be seen as competing for resources with existing bus service. “This does not take away from our MAX system,” Woodfin said. “This actually adds to the options of public transportation. Many progressive cities are way ahead of us doing that. … This allows us to move forward.”
“None of us should be afraid of a pilot program,” he added. “It’s either going to work or not work.”
O’Quinn echoed Woodfin’s sentiments. “I don’t see the city pulling back on its current commitment to the public, as far as our contract for services with the BJCTA,” he said, pointing to the city’s upcoming Bus Rapid Transit program, which will increase transit services along a 10-mile corridor connecting Five Points West to Woodlawn. The BJCTA “is sort of a frontrunner to be the operator for the BRT,” he said. “If anything, I see that adding to our commitment to fund public mass transit.”
The program is slated to begin in December, though no specific date has been set.