What if public transit was more like Uber? CATS tests whether it could work in Baton Rouge | News


Debra Wilson logs onto her Lynx mobile app at the beginning of a shift and waits near the Baker Police Department’s headquarters for someone to request her service.

When the app pings to tell her a rider is waiting, Williams jumps into one of a handful of black, turquoise and blue vans and drives to a pickup spot near the rider’s location.

The vans are clean and include plastic dividers between the front and back seats. On a hot summer day, the air conditioning system works hard to keep the vehicle cool.

Lynx is a new on-demand public transit service that the Capital Area Transit System launched in the city of Baker on June 7. It’s a pilot program that could soon be expanded to other parts of East Baton Rouge Parish.

The service is intended to expand public transit in a 12,606-person city that isn’t conducive to a large CATS bus rumbling down many of its smaller roads, CATS officials said.

“It serves the purposes that we wanted it to serve, and it fits the needs of the people who are using it at this particular time,” Baker Mayor Darnell Waites said. “It also opens up doors for people who never thought about using (CATS) before.”

Metro Council member Chauna Banks, who represents Baker, said she felt optimism that Lynx would encourage people to use public transportation who may not have previously used it.

“We need to change the framework that public transportation is not just something for poor people,” Banks said. “We as a community can all benefit from it regardless of where we are on the economic scale.”

How it works

The vans run Monday through Friday from 5 am to 9 pm and on Saturdays from 6 am to 8:30 pm

The service is free for the month of June to get people familiar with it. Rides will cost $1.75, seniors will pay 35 cents, and students will be able to ride for free, according to CATS.

Riders can call for a pickup using the Lynx mobile app or by calling (225) 267-9080. Rides can go anywhere within the Baker city limits, as well as key locations like the Lane Memorial Hospital in Zachary, diagnostic centers, the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport and connections to the broader CATS bus system.

Williams, a 63-year-old Clinton resident who previously drove school buses and for Uber Eats, said on Wednesday that a majority of her passengers have been employees of Baker’s Walmart heading to and from their shifts.

CATS is contracting with New York City-based Via Transportation, Inc. to operate the system. Via works with cities across the world to launch small-scale, on-demand public ride services, known as “microtransit.”

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Microtransit has recently grown across the country and is similar to consumer ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. It generally is more affordable than those companies and uses smaller vehicles than the average public transit system to pick up riders from fixed or flexible routes, as well as on-demand scheduling, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Cities like Annapolis, Maryland; Wellington, New Zealand; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Memphis, Tennessee, have used Via to launch microtransit services in recent years, according to the company.

“LYNX by CATS has experienced strong and growing ridership in the first week of service,” a Via author wrote. “While all of Via’s partners have unique goals based on the specific needs of each local community, LYNX by CATS ridership is certainly in line with what we would expect to see at launch time.”

The service also offers more predictable pay to its drivers by paying a fixed dollar amount per ride, something Williams said she finds more attractive over Uber.

“I like it better because I know how much I’m going to make,” Williams said.

Could it grow?

While the Lynx is still just getting off the ground, CATS officials are considering expanding it to other areas of its system, including the Cortana Mall area and LSU’s campus.

CATS’ contract with Via runs for one year, but officials won’t be ready to start drawing conclusions about its effectiveness until the fall, when high school and college students return to school and begin experimenting with it, Director of Planning Cheri Soileau said during Thursday’s CATS Planning Committee meeting.

In the short term, Waites said he’d like to see Lynx begin operating on Sundays so residents can use it to get to church.

Interest also exists in other areas of the CATS system. Mark Armstrong, spokesman for Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s office, said Lynx’s launch in Baker is being monitored by the city-parish.

“We’re interested in any ideas to expand public transit in Baton Rouge,” Armstrong said. “The idea is out there, and we’re interested in any and all new ideas.”

If any expansion of Lynx is to occur, Banks said she wants CATS to prioritize areas of North Baton Rouge, such as Scotlandville and the Southern University campus.

“I think it’s awesome that CATS started north in Baker, a city that absolutely supported the tax,” Banks said, referring to a recent vote to renew the property tax that funds CATS. “I think it shows a lot of recognition… for the city. But I don’t want us to go straight from Baker to LSU, I want them to go from Baker to Southern. Let’s see how this is going, then we can talk about Scotlandville, Southern, LSU and downtown — in that order.”

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