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Ashland gets new micro-transit option

Ashland is now being served by a pair of hybrid vans that for $2 will pick you up at home, take you to one of 24 stops in town and bring you back, all done when you digitally pay and summon them with taps on your smartphone.

Paid for with a $400,000 grant from the Statewide Transportation Improvement Fund, the 18-month pilot service kicked off Wednesday and will serve just Ashland for now, said Melissa Lowry, project planner for Rogue Valley Transportation District.

Ashland was chosen for the pilot because the city has so many hills and narrow streets that prohibit service with regular buses.

The target ridership for this micro-transit includes families, seniors, disabled people and those getting to medical appointments, but Lowry emphasizes you don’t have to have a special need — it’s for anyone to use from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Sundays, and should ease the town’s carbon impact, traffic and parking demand. It will add about four more hours of daily service after the first of the year.

Called the Ashland Connector, it gave its first ride to Bill Belew, a blind man and his service dog, from Skylark Assisted Living, where he had lunch with his sister, to a spot near his home at the corner of Siskiyou Boulevard and Tolman Creek Road.

“This is a real life-changer. It gives me independence to get places where the bus doesn’t go, and that’s real important,” said Belew, who teaches computers to other blind people and is a drummer in a rock band. “I sometimes take the taxi, but that’s $12 plus tip. I can walk it with Spidey (his dog), but it’s six miles or more.”

Diane Newell Meyer, an Ashland senior, said, “This is a nice new thing. I am also eligible for the Rogue Valley Lift, so both of these would be alternatives if I were stranded without a vehicle. I am surprised that they found the funds to do this.”

The connector is free for children 9 and younger and accompanied by an adult, a big plus for single parents on complex errands or shopping runs. Children 10 to 17 ride for $1.

Using smartphones, riders tap for a lift and get a return message estimating arrival time. With another tap, you see an Ashland map with the van inching toward you.

Users pay digitally before the ride. You can buy a monthly pass and get unlimited rides. As you board, you swipe your phone at the digital box and it subtracts a fare. If you don’t have a smartphone, you can schedule a ride at 541-842-2055.

The van may pick up another rider or two to share the trip, but they can’t increase your ride by more than 1.5 times what it would take for you alone. The software handles all these tasks, so there’s nothing for the driver to talk about — and he can’t leave his seat to help anyone.

There’s also an on-board slot for folding money if you don’t have a smartphone — and you can walk in and buy a six-ride square at the city utility office on the Plaza.

You get a free ride back home if you do it in under 90 minutes. If it’s longer, you swipe your phone for another $2 ride. You are also allowed two transfers to scheduled buses anywhere in the valley that buses go. You can only book rides for the same day.

The service to your home is intended for those who live a fair distance from downtown and other commercial areas. RVTD has set up 24 connector stops, including Albertsons, Ashland Senior Center, Mountain Meadows, Ashland Community Hospital, Southern Oregon University dorms, YMCA, ScienceWorks, Bi-Mart, House of Thai, Ashland High School, the light industrial area on Williamson Way, Safeway, Fourth and A streets, Umpqua Bank and more. You are expected to get picked up and dropped off at connector stops if you’re nearby.

The Ford Transit vans are ADA-accessible, and one has a wheelchair lift.

The connector is for anyone who visits or lives in Ashland. But it’s different than Valley Lift, which is designed for disabled people and offers help getting in and out.

“The pilot program runs to mid-2021, when it will be evaluated for ridership, cost-per-passenger, types of trips, then it will be studied for expansion to other towns in the valley,” said Paige West, RVTD planning and strategic program manager. “This service has been requested a long time by the City Council and residents of Ashland, and we’re the only town in Oregon using both the disabled service and demand-response vans.”

What’s been missing until now, West added, is “access for a large portion of our community, who are above the boulevard. Many people haven’t been able to get to transit or walk to the hospital or the railroad district.

The city had already approved the micro-transit vision, and in Mayor John Stromberg’s January letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission, he said the city supports the grant, as RVTD “aims to provide a viable, quality public transportation option that improves quality of life in the Rogue Valley by reducing traffic, boosting business, and allowing individuals to access jobs, school and health care.”

City Deputy Public Works Director Scott Fleury, who worked on the plan as part of the city’s Transportation Commission, noted, “It allows people to be picked up at their primary location and dropped at activity centers, priority stop locations and transfer locations for full RVTD access. The service operates under the same fare requirements as existing fixed routes, so it provides an economical option for travel within the city limits.”

RVTD and the city are spreading the word about Ashland Connector on social media. West and Lowry will give a tutorial on it from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Friday, Dec. 20, at the Ashland Senior Center, 1699 Homes Ave. It is free and open to the public.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Correction: The date of the tutorial has been corrected from an earlier version.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Bill Belew, with the help of companion, gets off the Ashland's new RVTD connector bus on Wednesday.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Ashland's new RVTD connector bus parks at the plaza on Wednesday.