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More Uber Than Bus: Salem's New Transit Service

What if the bus came when you called it? You have to plan ahead a little, but that’s the idea with a re-booted bus service in Salem, Oregon.

Salem-Keizer is trying to navigate a tough area for transit. A lot of people live on the city’s west side, but it’s hard for buses to get there. Neighborhoods are on steep hills with winding streets. The area has a lot of cul-de-sacs, and few major roadways.

And hardly anyone rides the bus.

Karen Ortega does, though. She lives in West Hills Estates. Here’s the thing about taking the bus in Salem: it’s so rare, people don’t really want to talk about it. “Oh, it’s embarrassing,” Ortega said. “I would take the Cherriot, but it’s quite a distance to [a bus stop]. I have to walk half-a-mile to get to it.”

The new West Salem Connector is more like an Uber than a bus. Passengers can request a ride through a browser-based mobile app, or with a phone call. The bus will come where they want, when they want, for the most part, as long as they reserve a spot between one hour and two weeks in advance.

Old service, new technology

West Salem Connector driver Karla Reed has been doing this job for 10 years, but now she’s doing her job a little differently. Reed uses a tablet computer to find out where her riders are, and she can take any route to get there -- she doesn’t have to drive in a circle.

This kind of service has existed for decades, but it used low-technology.

  Starting this fall, the West Salem Connector will replace two traditional bus routes on this side of town. The Connector costs about half as much to operate as regular bus lines, and it’s free for passengers for at least the first six months.

And for passengers, Ortega said, “This is much easier.”

Matt Berggren was part of a team of six Portland State University students who came up with the flexible transit plan. Salem-Keizer approached the school’s urban planning workshop. The goals were to get better transit into suburban west Salem and to get more suburban people riding the bus.

So, they looked at new ways to utilize the vehicles and services they already had. “This kind of service has existed for decades,” Berggren said. “But it used low-technology.”

Berggren and his classmates decided they could start with the dial-a-bus service -- the one that’s already in place for the elderly and disabled. They designed an app, and the transit service re-branded the old buses with bright colors and a new name.

'A different bus culture in Salem’

Jenny Furniss works for Salem-Keizer and was part of the redesign. She knows the same reality Berggren is trying to address with the Connector concept.

“It’s really a different bus culture in Salem,” she said. “There’s this mentality that you would only ride the bus if you have to, meaning you can’t afford a car, or you have a disability.”

In fact, not enough people are riding the bus to justify some services. Salem-Keizer doesn’t run at all on weekends.

But without those services, telling people to leave their cars at home can be a tough sell. “It’s kind of a chicken or an egg issue,” Berggren said. “We need more riders to justify spending more time on service, but we need better service in order to convince people to ride the bus.”

Berggren’s working on that officially now. He got a job with the transit service after college.

We need more riders to justify spending more time on service, but we need better service in order to convince people to ride the bus.

  The West Salem Connector pilot program started in June and more than 400 people tried it out during the first month.

It’s part of a larger effort to expand and repurpose transit in the city. The Connector will replace those less-popular bus routes in September, while other lines with higher demand will come by more often. Salem-Keizer is also pushing a November ballot measure to expand services later into the evening and on weekends.

But is it enough to make people in Salem get out of their cars and take the bus?

“Possibly?,” said Salem driver Zach Duprau. “I feel like that’d be a really good option for people who maybe don’t have access to a vehicle, but to be perfectly honest, I’ve got a car.”

Just like most people here, he’s more likely to drive.