Metro, Politics, Newton

U.S. Representative and Newton Mayor Test Ride ‘Pioneering’ Public Ride-Share Service

U.S. Representative Jake Auchincloss and Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller took a test ride together on Monday using NewMo, an app providing on-demand public transit in the City of Newton. 

NewMo, short for Newton in Motion, makes transportation flexible, Fuller said.

“God bless the MBTA and the bus routes, but they’re fixed routes, and we don’t live our lives in fixed patterns,” Fuller said. “Typically when you get outside of really tense areas like Boston, there are so many Newtons in the Commonwealth.”

Fuller launched NewMo in 2019, originally intended as a door-to-door service for seniors throughout the City of Newton. Last October, the service expanded, allowing users to ride anywhere in the city. Both Fuller and Auchincloss took NewMo from Newton Centre to the Newton Housing Authority, where they spoke to the public about the service.

Auchincloss described NewMo as innovative. 

“Newton has really been a pioneer of on-demand microtransit within Massachusetts,” Auchincloss said. 

Auchincloss said microtransit services like NewMo are intended to fill “transit deserts,” or gaps between homes and transportation centers such as bus stops and train stations. 

“It’s really about complementing public transit and walking and biking,” Auchincloss said. “You need all of these different modalities working together to connect people to jobs and services and to make it more convenient and less costly.”

Via, a transportation software company, built the app. Auchincloss said the company created the app in a way that meets the community’s need. 

“Unlike some of these other companies that have emerged in the last 10 years, [Via] worked with the city to say, ‘Hey, where are your challenge areas and how can we help?’” Auchincloss said. 

Two-thirds of the app’s user base since its expansion are commuters, and one third are seniors, according to Nicole Freedman, director of transportation planning in Newton. For seniors, the service is meant to be a door-to-door service, whereas for commuters, it’s a corner-to-corner service. 

NewMo also allows senior residents to get to medical appointments outside of Newton, Freedman said. 

“Fifty percent of our seniors are taking these trips to medical appointments,” Freedman said. “These get scheduled weeks—if not months—ahead, so they can pre-book, so they are guaranteed to get there.”

Recently, seniors have also been using the service to get to COVID-19 vaccination and testing appointments, according to Jayne Colino, director of the Newton Department of Senior Services.

“We actually had a great relationship with a private medical group that did vaccines,” Colino said. “It was a lifesaver—both the vaccine itself [and] the transportation to get to it. You can imagine trying to get to some of the bigger Mass vax sites intimidate people, so this was a perfect storm.”

To make the app more accessible, Colino said NewMo volunteers are trained to help people use the app, and seniors can be matched with people who are comfortable riding in NewMo when using the service.  

“We were very deliberate in creating this program to have access both by phone and the app,” Colino said. “It’s not just an age issue—it’s an economic issue as well. Both the library and the senior center now loan out phones as well, so lots of ways to have access to technology to do this.”

According to Amy Zarechian, the executive director of the Newton Housing Authority, clients of her organization have been taking advantage of the service as well. Some qualified low-income Newton residents can pay $0.50 per ride, while others pay $2 per ride.

“We’re really grateful that our residents can utilize this service … at a reduced rate,” Zarechian said. “A lot of our residents want to go to other places—for example, to doctors, friends, and social networks. So it’s been great.”

Freedman spoke about the importance of NewMo receiving funds from multiple sources, including regional and national grants. 

“I always believe in diversified funding,” said Freedman. “We’ve been doing grant funding for operations. And, you know, it’s still a pilot as a microtransit.”

Congress proposed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that would provide funding for microtransit services such as NewMo.

“We worked hard in the bipartisan infrastructure deal to get at least five programs for which on-demand or microtransit would be eligible,” Auchincloss said. “And now, our goal is to really advocate to [United States Secretary of Transportation Pete] Buttigieg and other administration officials that these programs are critical and complimentary to fixed rail and bus public transit.”

Freedman said she expects the service to continue to grow in the future. 

“I mean, we’re still growing,” Freedman said. “We grew 10 percent again since the holidays, and the seventh vehicle is now nearing capacity—I would bet in two to three years [we’ll have] 13 to 15 vehicles.”

Featured Image by Shruthi Sriram / Heights Staff

February 3, 2022