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The city that brought microtransit to rural America

Rodger Lentz, Chief Planning and Development Officer for Wilson, North Carolina, reveals why a small city 40 miles east of Raleigh is investing in the future of transportation.

Via Transportation •

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It was 2008 and the small city of Wilson, North Carolina — population, just under 50,000 — had a problem. A lack of widespread broadband internet access was hampering the city’s ability to compete for economic development opportunities and, by extension, new jobs for Wilsonians.  After being turned away by the corporate behemoths of the telecommunications industry, who just didn’t see how an investment in a rural community could be worthwhile, the city took matters into its own hands

That’s how the Greenlight Project came to be: a community-owned, all-fiber network that makes affordable gigabit internet service available to all Wilsonians. The city’s Chief Planning and Development Officer, Rodger Lentz, explains the motivation behind Greenlight in terms of equity and the need to bridge the “digital divide.” 

But when Lentz and City Manager, Grant Goings, decided to tackle public transit in Wilson, they knew that their best shot at success would mean bringing an experienced private partner on board. Wilson’s transit challenges lay in an inefficient bus network with fixed routes and schedules, resulting in hour-long headways, despite the fact that, as Lentz says, “I can get in a car and be anywhere I want in this city in 15 minutes or less.” 

Much like the city’s bold internet investment, equity was at the center of Wilson’s transit conversation. The legacy bus system primarily served those without regular access to private vehicles — individuals who depend on public transit to get to work, health care, and essential errands. The inefficiency of fixed routes made a difficult situation even more challenging and inconvenient for this lower-income population. City officials knew there must be a better way. And there was: microtransit

In September 2020, Wilson launched RIDE in partnership with TransitTech leader, Via. This on-demand service completely replaced Wilson’s outdated public transit system, expanding coverage to areas the previous system didn’t reach, and significantly reducing wait times for riders.  

The Federal Transit Administration immediately recognized RIDE as the future of rural transportation in the US, awarding the City of Wilson an Accelerating Innovative Mobility (AIM) grant to fund service expansion. As a recipient of this grant, Wilson is also part of the inaugural class of AIM Incubators, described as “a national network of innovative transit agencies that test new mobility solutions and broadly share the results with industry.” Residents are loving the new service as well. RIDE maintains a 4.96 out of 5 rider rating and one-third of riders use the app very frequently — 5 times or more — with the average rider having taken 4 rides so far. 

And unlike with broadband internet, Wilson didn’t have to jump into the unknown alone. Instead, Via worked with the city to tailor a turnkey solution to the community’s needs. Via provides both the technology to power the network and the operations to manage it, including driver training and vehicle sourcing. Wilsonians can book trips through mobile application, dedicated web portal, or by phone, and the service accepts payments made by prepaid debit cards — operational solutions crafted to serve those without smartphones or credit cards. The sheer convenience of the service opens up public transit to new riders, who previously shied away from the inflexible, legacy fixed routes.

For Lentz, RIDE represents the future of rural transportation. When he and his colleagues first embarked on this journey several years ago, they struggled to find communities of their size providing reliable and affordable transportation to residents. But now, he thinks microtransit is the answer for car-oriented rural areas across the country. “My father-in-law lives in a city about half the size of Wilson. He uses a wheelchair...a system like this helps the individuals like that.”

In this conversation with Via’s Olivia Blahut, recorded just before the service launched, Lentz talks about the ins and outs of the on-demand service, including how the city funded this innovative project.