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Transcript of JoCo on the Go podcast 09/09/2019

Announcer: [00:01] Whether you live in or just love Johnson County, Kansas, JoCo on the Go has everything Johnson County. Here's what's happening and what's coming up in the community you call home.

Theresa Freed: [00:13] Thanks for joining us for JoCo on the Go. I'm your host, Teresa Freed, a Johnson County resident and employee of Johnson County government. Today we're talking about public transportation and a new way to get around in Johnson County. It's known as microtransit. To tell us more. I'm joined by Josh Powers with Johnson County government. Thanks for joining us, Josh.

Josh Powers: [00:33] Thanks so much for having me.

Theresa Freed: [00:34] All right, before we dig into the topic, can you tell us a little bit about how you came to the county and your role here? I know that we have kind of a similar background. We both came from state government over to Johnson County, so can you talk about that?

Josh Powers: [00:46] Absolutely, yes. We're reformed "staties." Before I came to the county, I was the state public transportation manager at the Kansas Department of Transportation, so working on all the statewide programs as far as public transportation in Kansas. And when the opportunity presented itself to come over to the county and work on a really what was a new iteration of public transportation with the consolidation between the county and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, I was very excited to do that. You know, Johnson County and local government general moves a lot more quickly than state government does. So my title here is Business Liaison, which is a tad bit misleading, but that, what that entails is that I oversee all the public transportation programs in the county, and I manage our contract with the KCATA.

Theresa Freed: [01:28] And can you talk a little bit about that partnership? It's very unique. So it may not be clear necessarily to the people who are riding what Johnson county's role is in that.

Josh Powers: [01:37] Absolutely. I'm glad you mentioned that. So for 40 years, Johnson County had its own transit department and service called the Jo. And to this day, people will refer to the service as the Jo, but it's actually RideKC. So RideKC is the regional transportation network, and that encompasses Johnson County, Kansas City, Missouri; a Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas; Independence, Missouri. It's the entire region under one banner. So when it took a while for people to get used to these blue buses with the RideKC logo, but when you see that, that is the public transportation service. And so what's really cool about that is we're coordinated in a way that we never, in a way that we were never liked before. So you can get throughout the region with, without having to switch services, without having to pay different fares, which was the case when we began in 2015, you know for example, Kansas, the Kansas would have a different fare structure than we do. And so if you're using our service to get to KC, it was kind of a hassle. It was not an easy service to access. So we basically purchase our service from the KCATA. And so the county and county government, the board of County commissioners makes all the policy decisions, but the ATA provides the service.

Theresa Freed: [02:43] Okay. That helps clear that up. And obviously public transportation is very important here in our county in just about everywhere. And people use it for a variety of reasons. So what does public transportation look like in Johnson County in terms of who's using it and how they use it?

Josh Powers: [02:58] Sure. It really does touch every segment of our community. People use public transportation to get to work. They use it to get to medical services, they get it, use it to go shopping and just participate in their community. Here in Johnson County, what that really looks like for the most part is commuter service. So folks leaving the county and going to the urban core to work and then coming back again in the mornings and the evenings. So we've known that for a long time, intra-county service is limited and people want to be able to get east and west. If you're in Lenexa, it can be difficult to get to Overland Park and so forth. So that's really what was part of the impetus for microtransit to be a new service that connected people to fixed route service but also gave them better mobility options.

Theresa Freed: [03:38] Okay. And so a lot of people are probably familiar with Uber and just traditional taxi services. But Ride KC's Micro Transit program, this is obviously new, and can you talk a little about how exactly it got started, you mentioned the need for it. But what has been the, the level of support that we've seen from the commissioners and then on down?

Josh Powers: [03:59] Well, really the commission drove this. They were really pushing us as staff to be innovative and to, you know, go where the issue was, where the challenge was. And that's access to public transportation. You know, if you live near a stop, you can walk to the stop and get on and go. Johnson County is very large spread out county. So there are many folks who just can't make what was called in the industry, first, last mile connections. And that's what a microtransit really is. It's a way to connect people from their front door to a transit stop to then go on to wherever their destination is. But much like Uber and Lyft and these other services that are kind of known as mobility as a service in this day and age, people want pretty instantaneous gratification. They want to use their phone to access a service and then get where they're going. And so microtransit kind of is the sweet spot between the two. You can use it in either way, that is to get to a bus route to go on, or you can go directly to the front door of what your destination is. Now it is a pilot, and in the future, the fare structure is going to change, because those are different levels of service. If you use it to get to a bus, it will probably cost the same as it does now - $1.50 To get on to both vehicles. That's one cost for, for one-way trip. But if you're gonna use it as an Uber-like service, which in Johnson County, if you're gonna use an Uber, it's going to be $20 likely or more. So we know that it's, that's a premium service, and we need to charge a little bit more for it.

Theresa Freed: [05:24] Okay, that makes sense. Now, as you mentioned, it is a pilot and so it's not available in every aspect or every part of Johnson County. So what is the service area?

Josh Powers: [05:33] So the service area is right in the core center of the county touches Shawnee, Overland Park, Lenexa. But the boundaries are, on the west, Renner Road; on the north, Shawnee Mission Parkway; on the east, Metcalf Avenue, and on the south, 119th Street. Now, there are two cutouts that are exceptions to that - the KU Edwards campus, which is just South of 119th street, and then the Mission Transit Center in Mission, Kansas, which is where a lot of most of our service between the county, the UG and Kansas City, Missouri, all of the routes connect there. So if you can get microtransit to Mission Transit Center, you basically have the entire network available to you.

Theresa Freed: [06:10] Okay. And I think I heard that we have a partnership with Johnson County Community College and then also recently adding a farmer's market. So can you talk about the response to those additions?

Josh Powers: [06:19] Sure. So we really like to partner with folks in the community, whether it's an organization or a school or university. So with Johnson County Community College, they have enrolled in our U-Pass program, and they provide us with a subsidy. And that means that student, faculty and staff can ride for free with a valid ID from JCCC. So that's really pretty exciting. There's obviously different populations of students, like for example, international students who are attending classes but don't have a driver's license. This really opens up the metro area to them. So when microtransit came about, the City of Overland Park was very interested and reached out to us to say, "Hey, we have a farmer's market," as people well know, in downtown Overland Park on Wednesdays and Saturdays. And they were really interested in partnering as a way to leverage the service and kind of get some excitement both around the market and downtown. And so we partner with them. They pay for any trip on a Saturdays that goes to downtown, not just the farmer's market, but anywhere within downtown Overland Park. Similarly, we partnered with them to expand the Saturday service area, so on Saturdays that eastern border goes from Metcalf all the way to State Line. So basically, you can get from Renner Road to State Line, East/West with microtransit. And that was through our partnership with Overland Park.

Theresa Freed: [07:34] Okay. And I'm sure you've gotten lots of positive bits of feedback from people from that.

Josh Powers: [07:40] People do seem to like it. A lot of uptake to get to downtown, you know, the farmer's market. I think that there is a perception of a parking issue there. I think there's probably adequate parking, but it's not, you go there, you instantaneously have a space to park. So you know, people like that front door access and microtransit gives that to them without having to worry about where they're going to park or how long or how far they have to walk with their purchases from the market.

Theresa Freed: [08:04] Yeah, very, very easy access there. And so some people might not be familiar with exactly how this works. And you mentioned that people can use their phones to call on the service. So can you talk about what steps people can take just to get started with this? And, and you had mentioned the costs, so if you might say that again.

Josh Powers: [08:23] Sure. Absolutely. So we are partnered with a software company called TRANSLOC, I'll say that and spell it, but it's T-R-A-N-S-L-O-C, it looks like trans lock. It's not, it's TRANSLOC. So when you get on the app store, you want to search for TRANSLOC and the app will come up. You hit on that and it's really specific to Johnson County that you don't have to make any options between what they're doing in other places of the country or in Kansas City, Missouri, it's just for Johnson County. So it's just like you would do with an Uber or Lyft account, you would fill in your information, you need a credit card, and then once you do that, it shows you the service area you can put in your origin and your destination and it will tell you how long it will take for the driver to come pick you up and how long the trip will be. Typically our wait times are under 15 minutes, which is really great. Occasionally it does get busy and the times get longer than that. But as you mentioned, this is a pilot. And so for the pilot period and the pilot goes through the end of 2019, it's $1.50, So a really, really low price for a, a pretty premium service. As I mentioned before, after the pilot period wraps up and we've done some analysis, we do think that there'll be tiered fare structure so you can use it in a number of different ways based on cost. But really the idea is for this to be an affordable mobility option for people.

Theresa Freed: [09:38] Okay. And when does the pilot period end?

Josh Powers: [09:40] December 31st at midnight.

Theresa Freed:] 09:42] Oh, at midnight. Okay. Very precise. Okay. So does the service cut off immediately at that point or do you guys still offer it? It's just now you're evaluating it.

Josh Powers: [09:53] So you know, really those decisions are up to the Board of County Commissioners, but in all likelihood we will have by that time decided what the pilot will translate into as far as a permanent service. So my estimation is that it will continue operating. There may be some tweaks around the edges, but a, it won't just shut off at midnight on New Year’s. Day. Service is 14 hours a day. So 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. We know people would like to use it later and that comes really down to what the board wants to subsidize as far as a service. I think there's some good arguments to be made that if you want it to go out to a restaurant or a bar, this is a good service that, you know, keeps people safe. But right now, that's not been the priority.

Theresa Freed: [10:36] Okay. Sounds good. Well, great information, and you can learn more by visiting RideKC.org. Thanks for joining us. And joining us now is a strong supporter of microtransit, Johnson County Board of County Commissioners Vice Chair Jim Allen. Welcome.

Jim Allen: [10:51] Thank you. You're talking about one of my favorite subjects. microtransit.

Theresa Freed: [10:55] That's great. We just heard from Josh. He was talking about the popularity of the pilot project. So where do you see the microtransit option going as we move forward?

Jim Allen: [11:05] I think it's going to be a main part of the Johnson County transit system in the future. The pilot program has been very successful. We're told that it's the most successful microtransit program in the country, and I think in the future there may be a possibility to go to a different area of the county where this will possibly work also.

Theresa Freed: [11:26] Okay. And I imagine cost is gonna be a consideration it's a very affordable option right now. But going forward, looking beyond the pilot, what sorts of considerations will you be looking at in terms of that cost?

Jim Allen: [11:37] Well, we have an overall budget for transit and I frankly see, we'll probably see more of a transition to this microtransit and some fixed routes that we have. And then possibly some of the routes that the usage is low on may be looked at. Then the additional revenue could be used if we adjust those routes for microtransit.

Theresa Freed: [11:57] All right. So why do you think this is such a great thing?

Jim Allen: [12:00] While I think it's, first of all, we're in a county with a lot of people that obviously have uses to the cell phone. And I think that the way it was designed around the Johnson County Community campus, KU, Mission Transit Center. It's worked very well. And the surprising thing out of this, it's helped our fixed routes. So overall Johnson County transit ridership is up this year and that's quite a bit different than what's nationally. So there's been very positive results so far.

Theresa Freed: [12:29] All right, well we'll keep following it and thank you for joining us. Thank you. Continuing our conversation about Johnson county's new way to get around. We're talking about microtransit. So next we're going to hit the streets and let you know what our passengers and drivers think about the service.

Eddie Burton: [12:45] My name is Eddie Burton. I am an employee of RideKC and I drive a microtransit bus. We work the Johnson County area. We have been doing this service now since late January, the first week of February. And I've been with the service since it started, been tremendously successful. We get a lot of students from JCCC and the other schools in the area and also some, some of our high schools too. We also help out with people who are trying to get to work in the area and people who are trying to make medical appointments elderly people. We do a lot with elderly people and we also are capable of taking a wheelchair. So are wheelchair accessible. People are ecstatic about this service. They feel like it's one of the best things that could ever happen to them. It's nominal charge of $1.50, so for people who are economically strapped, they can't afford the Lyft and Uber. This has really come as a godsend for them when they rave about that and the fact that we pick up, we go from door to door. So we've picked you up at your door and we take you to the door that you're going to.

Passenger #1: [13:58] Well, I like it that they're usually on time and that they text my phone and let me know when they're on the way and what the, the ETA is going to be.

Passenger #2: [14:08] I use it to get back and forth to work. And when I've got stranded a few times where I've tried to walk to the grocery store and a storm rolled in and I couldn't make it home and I was able to call them and they were able to get me home. I'm just thankful that I can get to work without having transportation and stuff.

Eddie Burton: [14:31] You have a bus pass, a RideKC pass. That is valid. You don't have to pay. If you are a veteran and have your veteran pass,you don't have to pay. If you're disabled and have your disability thing, you don't have to pay. So Johnson County has really made a service for people to help people and that's what we're about. We're about helping people.

Theresa Freed: [14:54] Some great feedback there. And if you want to learn more about microtransit, just visit RideKC.org. And if you want to continue to follow the discussion about the pilot program, be sure to tune into our weekly Board of County Commissioners meeting. You can watch live at 9:30 a.m. every Thursday at boccmeetings.jocogov.org. Thanks for listening.

Announcer: [15:16] You just heard JoCo on the Go. Join us next time for more everything Johnson County. Have a topic you want to discuss? We want to hear from you. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter at JoCoGov. For more on this podcast, visit jocogov.org/podcast. Thanks for listening.