A neatly dressed woman got into a big white shuttle near Fort Totten one recent afternoon carrying bags full of okra and broccoli leaves.
She was carrying a distinguished air as well, and appeared unlikely to be engaged in a war. But a war she was in, she said, as she climbed into the van in front of a community garden.
"How’s the farming going?” the driver, Rafiq Butler, asked her.
“You remember when I told you about someone parking in front of my plot?” she said.
Since they’d last spoken, said the woman, who didn’t want to give her name, she’d gotten a “No Parking” sign to put next to her plot.
“I came today and someone took my sign,” she said. She thinks another person at the garden has been parking next to her plot and snatched the sign. “We had an exchange of words. So it’s a war at the community garden,” she said.
The scene was about more than the drama unfolding amid the tranquility of a community garden. It also illustrated the beginning of a new way some people are getting around the D.C. area at a time when companies like Lyft and Uber have raised consumers’ expectations about being able to go door-to-door.
The woman was glad to get into one of the air-conditioned shuttles the city is running in an area straddling Northeast and Northwest under a program known as DC MicroTransit. The free-for-now shuttle program created by D.C’s Department of For-Hire Vehicles and local cab company Transco is unshackled from fixed bus and train routes.
The gardener lives a couple of miles away in the Woodridge neighborhood, which she called the “backroads” when it comes to transportation choices.
Buses between her home and the garden are unpredictable and require transfers, so she might have walked home with her bags if not for the shuttle, she said. Or she might have walked to the Fort Totten Metro station, taken a train to the Rhode Island Avenue station and walked home from there.
Instead, she called a dispatcher. She also could have ordered a ride using an app provided for the program by Via.
The call appeared on a screen in front of Butler. Ten minutes later, he pulled up to the garden and the woman climbed in, telling her war story.
As with shared Lyft and Uber rides, the shuttles pick up and drop off others. On its way to the woman’s home, the van picked up three siblings going home from advanced summer classes. They were glad not to be waiting a half-hour in the sun for a bus.
Officials in D.C. and Montgomery County, which launched its own $2-a-ride microtransit program in June, insist the experiments aren’t meant to compete with ride-sharing, but to fill in the gaps between where buses and trains run.
“The best benefit is there’s no fixed route,” said David Do, director of D.C’s for-hire vehicles department. “People can get picked up and go to their medical appointments or the grocery.”
Montgomery transportation director Al Roshdieh said that rather than making longer trips like Lyft and Uber, the county’s shuttles, like D.C.’s, run only within limited areas.
The county is running shuttles within one zone encompassing the Glenmont and Wheaton Metro stations during the morning and afternoon commutes to see if people will use them to get to and from the Metro. They are also being run in the Rockville area between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to see if people will use them for shopping, medical appointments and other trips.
D.C. transportation director Jeff Marootian said in an interview that the department is actively considering running microtransit shuttles east of the Anacostia River, where residents complain about infrequent buses.
Thus far, usage is low, but Do said the number of rides doubled from 267 in May, when the program began, to 530 in June. He said the city will likely begin charging $1 to $3 a ride starting Oct. 1, and he thinks people will pay it.
Transportation officials also don’t see the programs as competing with Metro, saying the aim is to encourage people not to drive to stations. Do’s program serves the Fort Totten, Rhode Island, Shaw, NoMa-Gallaudet, Brookland, Georgia Avenue-Petworth and Takoma stations, though he hadn’t yet tracked how many people are using the shuttles to get to and from Metro.
Metro told The Washington Post in February that it is exploring microtransit, as transit agencies deal with changing expectations brought by new ride-hailing competitors. In grappling with providing late-night service, Metro began subsidizing up to $3 for Uber, Lyft and taxi rides starting July 1 for those getting off work at midnight instead of running trains later.
“While microtransit cannot match the efficiency of frequent transit in urban areas, it may offer opportunities to serve low-density or off-hour travel markets more cost-effectively than with regular bus service,” spokeswoman Sherri Ly said.