Arlington's rideshare program picking up steam

A snow-covered skyline can be seen from the 37th floor of the Sheraton Dallas on Feb. 4, 2011. The Dallas suburb of Arlington offers Via on-demand rideshare services in lieu of public transportation. Like Uber or Lyft, passengers can hail a Via ride using an app on their smartphone. But unlike those services, Via won't pick passengers up at their doorstep but will provide a pickup location within a short walk.

ARLINGTON, Texas-Justin Tarkington is a big fan of Via on-demand rideshare service.

Each work day, he uses the Via app to hail a ride from his home in east Arlington-not far from East Mitchell Road and Texas 360-and within moments a Mercedes Metris van shows up to give him a ride to CentrePort train station.

From there, he catches the Trinity Railway Express to Fort Worth, where he works each day in the food service industry.

"I get where I need to go-home, and work," Tarkington said on a recent afternoon outside CentrePort.

Tarkington's experience is just what Arlington boosters want to hear: someone using the service to get to work instead of using a car.

In its latest figures, Arlington said there have been more than 113,000 rides since the service began in December 2017. Roughly half the rides begin or end near the University of Texas at Arlington or downtown Arlington.

And plenty of people have downloaded the app-there are now 12,290 accounts.

"We have really established new paths," Mayor Jeff Williams said. "Our Via rideshare program has caught fire across America."

Last March, Arlington's program drew national attention from CBS. Via is also setting up a pilot program in Los Angeles and operates in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

And Williams noted that the Tarrant County Mayors Council approved a resolution about trying to find a way to bring group rideshare throughout the county.

Like Uber or Lyft, passengers can hail a ride using an app on their smartphone for $3 a ride. Unlike those other services, Via won't pick passengers up at their doorstep but will instead provide a pickup location within a short walk. There's a good chance other passengers will be inside the shuttle.

But some question whether Arlington is still a transit desert.

Diane Allen, UTA's director of landscape architecture, has written a book on transit deserts and insists Arlington is still one.

"I think there's definitely a need for mass transit," Allen said. "Via is proving you need more of it. I think it's just the beginning. I don't think it's the solution."

Rachel Albright is president and chief staff executive of Tarrant Transit Alliance, a fledgling group that promotes regionwide connections in the western half of the Metroplex. She applauds Arlington's Via service for extending new forms of ride-sharing to an audience that otherwise might not try it, and using data and algorithms to maximize time savings for riders.

But Albright said there is no replacement for public transit that covers all parts of a city with frequent, reliable service.

"A major transit-dependent group lives in Arlington," she said, "but right now it (Via) is not an option for them."

Arlington will continue to look for other transit opportunities, Williams said, but won't make the costly infrastructure investments for buses or light rail.

"We're not done but what we have is a very convenient, cost-efficient solution," Williams said.

A list of innovative transportation projects from the Department of Transportation shows Arlington has the most in Texas, from on-street testing of autonomous vehicles to its connected signals program that provides drivers real-time signal data, anticipated wait time and suggested travel speed.

The most pressing demand from residents is when will Via expand, Williams said.

Via's service area extends from Lamar Boulevard to the north, Interstate 20 to the south, Texas 360 to the east and Fielder Road to the west-that's about third of the city.

Via costs about $1.7 million annually but to expand it citywide would run about $7 million, said Alicia Winkelblech, senior strategic initiatives officer for the city of Arlington. There isn't timeline for when it could run citywide.

Also, Via runs a limited schedule, staying open only until 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Arlington, which has rejected increased sales taxes for bus service three times, is known as the largest city in the United States without mass transit. During debates on the issue, many critics have complained that cities that have full-fledged bus service pay high taxes to support those services, and yet there are times when many of the buses run empty.

Asked about this inefficiency, Albright cites a book titled "Human Transit" by Jarrett Walker, who argues that a bus with low ridership operating on city streets is still a cheaper alternative to a bus sitting idly waiting for a ride-sharing call to come in. Why? Because the former is reinforcing a feeling of redundancy and reliability in the community, whereas the latter is pretty much invisible to all but a few.

And, as Via riders know, it's not uncommon to see the black buses with blue stripes and the words "Arlington on-demand" written on their sides parked idly in certain areas (including CentrePort Station, as well as UTA) for 10 minutes or longer, waiting for a customer to request a ride on an app.

Allen, the UTA professor, came to Arlington from New Orleans. Allen noted it had buses as well as a streetcar system that was popular with tourists. She said it's time for Arlington to embrace its role as a large city rather than car-centric suburb.

"Arlington has all the pieces," Allen said. "It's an employment center. It's got diversity. It's got a major university. It's just waiting for something more."