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Uber-style LeeTran service makes debut in Bonita Springs

DEMOCRACY WATCH: LeeTran
Samantha Roesler
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ULTRA On Demand is a LeeTran service that debuted February in Bonita Springs. Riders can use the Uber app to request a pickup and drop off anywhere in the service zone that spans from Lovers Key to the east part of the city.

A new way of using public transportation has made its way to Lee County through LeeTran’s new ULTRA On Demand service, providing an Uber-style way to use public transit in Southwest Florida.

Currently being tested in Bonita Springs, the ULTRA On Demand busses have replaced route 150 and will take riders anywhere from Lover's Key to the east part of the city.

The Uber app is the main, and preferred, way of requesting the on-demand service. If a rider is within the service area and books a ride to a location also within the service area, the ULTRA bus will show as an option. A ride through this Lee County service costs $1.50 no matter the distance.

“I can’t imagine a bigger, more important reason (to use ULTRA) than the economic piece of it,” Stacey Perkins, LeeTran marketing and communications manager, said. “The main benefit is probably the fact that it’s $1.50 a ride, and you can’t beat that in any way.”

There are currently two ULTRA busses running in Bonita Springs, each holding 10 people plus a wheelchair. Right now, the Uber app allows only two people to reserve a spot on the bus at a time, but multiple phones can be used to arrange a pickup for more than two people. However, the requests fall into a first-come, first-served status so it’s not guaranteed that all requests of a larger group can be made.

“We’re seeing if there are capabilities to expand beyond that, just because we have had some groups that were bigger that wanted to all book at the same time,” Perkins said.

For those unfamiliar with how Uber works, or for people without a smartphone, there is a customer service number available to make reservations. However, the LeeTran team has been pleased with the adaptability of locals to this new system.

“It seems like people are getting more and more comfortable with that technology, despite age and any kind of restrictions, people are definitely embracing it,” Perkins said. “We’re seeing more and more people utilizing it that we were wondering if they would catch on to it, so it’s pretty cool.”

Bonita Springs Councilor Jesse Purdon thinks that using an Uber-like service won’t exclude those that are unfamiliar with the way the process works.

“I don’t think it alienates anybody,” Purdon said. “Once they realize the technology, it’s going to open it up for more people.”

Victoria Albright lives in a rural part of Southwest Florida and sees a lack of transportation benefits for people who live outside of the city. If a service like ULTRA were available where she lives, she would take advantage of the benefits.

“It there was accessibility, I would consider taking a bus for certain errands into town,” Albright said.

Using more well-known technology such as Uber could help public transportation regain a more positive reputation.

“I think there is a negative stigma about taking the bus nowadays, and that doesn’t need to be,” Albright said. “(The technology) should affect positively, as no one thought that getting into a car alone with a stranger was weird or dangerous. I don’t believe it will take away from more modern ways of transport, just make it more acceptable as we quickly accepted Uber.”

The ULTRA On Demand service is not LeeTran’s only project aimed towards encouraging the use of public transportation.

The new park and ride that will be across the street from Bell Tower Shops, replacing, the current transfer area at the mall, is underway and in the preliminary design phase. Completion of the new parking lot with a covered waiting area and public restrooms is anticipated by 2023.

An effort of interlining, combining two or more routes to arrive and depart in a common location at the same time, was recently completed in Estero for routes 240 and 600. People taking the 240 route to Immokalee Road no longer have to get off the bus to transfer at Coconut Point.

“This makes it so they transfer without getting off, they don’t pay additional fares and it keeps things moving,” Perkins said. “We’re looking for more routes to add to that efficiency which is a pretty big deal for public transportation.”

As far as the new Uber-like system being used in Bonita, the next step for LeeTran is expanding the service in Lehigh Acres. This is paired with a new station that eventually will become a hub for when the On Demand service launches.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to go, park, and then hop on and get connected to one of the other routes, or get a direct curb-to-curb type of service if that’s what they need,” Perkins said.

The ULTRA On Demand service runs from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.