With night service up and running, BRTA looks to new avenues for ridership

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PITTSFIELD — For years, commuters have been asking the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority to run buses at night.

Now that several nighttime loops have been established as a one-year trial, the agency's administrator hopes that people will actually use the service so it can become a permanent part of the schedule.

"We want our customers to actually ride the bus," Bob Malnati told The Eagle this week. "They have anecdotally been saying for years that `we want evening service,' and now we're dipping our toes in the water."

Malnati and BRTA staff have been working to modernize the agency and its service for nearly 10 years, starting with the creation of its app. Now, with the night service up and running, he is focused on exploring new projects, like bringing more on-demand service to the Berkshires.

The authority began surveying riders last year on what routes and times would be the most useful if there was going to be an expansion of services. The data showed that people were most interested in night service in Pittsfield that served Tyler Street and Berkshire Community College.

The BRTA funded its own pilot program, testing out trips along those routes between 6 and 10 p.m. starting in January. And in May, the agency received a $361,000 grant that allowed for the addition of evening trips from the Intermodal Transportation Center in Pittsfield to the Walmart in North Adams and to Great Barrington, Malnati said.

Those night routes to north and south county will kick off in July, he said.

Ridership using the night service has progressively grown since January. Employees at Pittsfield's Walmart and Market 32 on Hubbard Avenue have been taking the bus to get to the night shift, Malnati said.

The first month "was tough," Malnati said, because the community college was on holiday for a significant part of the month. "It picked up through February, and March was greater than February, so on," he said.

The night service costs about $30,000 a month, and Malnati has projected that riders will make about 15,000 trips in that time.

"It was our trial that we had to pay for through the end of May. Then we got the grant from DOT that picked it up through next June," he said. "We will have to gauge somewhere in this time frame, is this going to be cost-effective?"

Benjamin Lamb, director of economic development for 1Berkshire, said one of the biggest challenges to employers is getting their workforce to and from their shifts.

"To see that they're including transport possibilities to additional hours of the day is awesome," he said of the BRTA's initiative. "The additional benefit there is, folks who wish to engage socially can use the later routes."

The BRTA works with 1Berkshire in a number of ways, including through the recently formed Transportation Management Association as well as planning of The Berkshire Flyer.

While night service was a BRTA initiative, Lamb was aware of the project and plans to collect ridership data at a meeting later this summer.

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"We're really excited to hear its coming to fruition," he said.

Going forward, Malnati is focused on "more out-of-the-box thinking" on transportation in the Berkshires.

While the city routes seem to work, Malnati wants to figure out a solution to better serve the more rural areas.

"In a densely populated area, a fixed-route makes sense," he said. "In Great Barrington, do you have more of a circular route? Do we have more of a demand-response type service? We're exploring those."

Malnati is going to a transportation conference where he will speak with officials from other regions who have tested the on-call transportation styles to determine whether it would be suitable for the Berkshires.

"We plan on talking to them about where it's actually in operation," he said. "We certainly don't want to try and reinvent the wheel here."

Lamb said that on-demand or "microtransit" service, using smaller shuttlelike vehicles for public transportation, is becoming a go-to practice for more rural regions in the country, including the area around Denver.

"They've got some really effective measures for on-demand and microtransit," he said. "It starts to fill in the gaps between standard routing and the idea of a personal vehicle."

If the BRTA were to pursue that type of service, it wouldn't get off the ground and running for at least two years, Malnati said.

The agency would first need to get grant funding before it put the infrastructure in place to get it started, he said.

Malnati said that the BRTA has been looking toward more state-of-the-art projects for about eight years, calling its real-time bus tracker app, "Where's My B-bus?," the county's best-kept secret.

"You can track the whole system," he said. "You can hover over the bus and it will tell you if it's going inbound or outbound."

Riders waiting for a bus can use the technology to track where the closest one to their location is and how long it will take to arrive, he said. Some locations are served by several routes.

"We just want to say that we listen to what our customers are asking for," Malnati said. "And we're trying to incorporate that more into the services that we offer."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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