The city of Newton offers a local transportation program called NewMo, which lets residents share rides within town for very low prices, reducing traffic and helping individuals who don’t drive. If the local transportation study recently presented to the Select Board turns into a similar program, Needham residents could be finding NeeMo on our streets.

Working with a cross-sectional working group, the town hired the consulting firm Via to examine the demand for and use of public transportation in town. The firm surveyed more than 400 residents and met with representatives of interest groups including lower-income residents, the elderly and high school families. Transportation analyst Gal Kramer presented the findings at the July 25 Select Board meeting.

Improving in-town transportation options would potentially have an impact on parking and traffic. But the larger impact, Kramer said, would be for residents who don’t or cannot drive. “Currently, only 16% of Needham residents use public transportation for local trips,” Kramer reported, yet 51% of those responding to the survey said they would use microtransit options similar to Newton’s. Even with improved service, most residents would be “choice riders,” she said, meaning they have personal transportation options such as cars and bicycles, but may prefer to use a public service.

The microtransit model in Newton works similarly to shared app rides from Uber or Lyft. Users enter their location and destination in an app, and drivers pick them up, adding or subtracting other riders whose trips match up. The program charges a flat fee of $4 per ride — $3 for seniors and $1 for qualifying low-income residents. 

Needham currently offers van service to help seniors get to grocery stores and other common errands, and the MBTA Ride program helps those who cannot walk to MBTA stations. An MBTA bus (the 59 route) travels every 40 minutes between Needham Junction and Watertown Square, including stops near the MBTA Green Line. Still, the transportation analysts estimate that a microtransit program would have roughly 46,000 rides per year.

Amy Haelsen, Needham’s director of communications and community engagement, said based on the survey and stakeholder interviews, popular destinations would include Needham High School, DeFazio Park and the Charles River YMCA for high school students; Olin College of Engineering; Green Line T stops in Newton; Needham Library; Needham Center; Trader Joe’s; commuter rail stations; Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital (Needham); Dedham Medical Center; and Needham Crossing (office park area).

The study also considered other transit options, such as additional bus routes. However, fixed bus routes may not lure choice riders from their cars. The predicted annual ridership on a bus route through Needham Center was just under 28,000.

Bringing a program like this to fruition would take time and investment. The study was merely to understand the potential so that the Select Board could begin to consider it among the many possible ways to improve the town’s quality of life and services for subsets of the community. 

“I want to stress that this was a feasibility study, and we have a long way to go before anything is implemented,” said Haelsen.

Needham resident Seth Bauer is the former editor in chief of magazines published by National Geographic, Martha Stewart Living and Reader’s Digest.

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