FORT SMITH -- A new community-based effort to bring more transportation options to low-income residents is set to begin early next year.
Stakeholders in the University of Arkansas and Fort Smith want seven stations equipped with electric and non-electric bicycles in the city as part of a pilot project with research components. The project is called Shared Micromobility for affordable-accessible housing and paid through the Virginia-based National Science Foundation.
Suman Mitra, assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Arkansas and principal investigator of the pilot project, said Monday the project is in the design phase. The stations are planned to be ready in late January or early February.
Mitra said the project's objectives are two-fold: To make a scientific contribution toward research on shared micromobility, and to develop something sustainable benefiting the low-income community in Fort Smith.
"We believe that, and our plan is that, if we can make a successful project and people like it, then maybe the city will be able to get enough local investors to invest in this so that the city can run this bicycle program by themselves in the future," Mitra said.
Carl Geffken, Fort Smith city administrator, said if the project works, city directors could allow the city to partner with local investors or companies to continue operating it.
Geffken said the seven bike stations should be a helpful extension to the city's Transit Department and improve residents' everyday lives, such as through helping them get to work or shop.
"It will also help the city of Fort Smith with workers being able to get to different areas for jobs, and it should then show that Fort Smith is a progressive city that is looking for innovative ways to grow and expand and help its residents," Geffken said.
The pilot project will run until the end of 2022, Mitra said.
Purpose and scope
Mitra said three of the stations will be placed in low-income neighborhoods -- two at public transportation stops and two at companies. The final locations should be selected by mid-January with community feedback.
Reese Brewer, director of the Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization in Fort Smith and co-principal investigator of the project, said the city's northern side is the "study area," although those involved are looking at other areas as well. This stems from the University of Arkansas wanting to focus on the mismatch between low-income housing and shared micromobility services.
Most studies and deployments of this nature across the country have been in higher-income areas with more density or population, not necessarily in low-income housing areas or near people working late shifts, according to Brewer.
"We really wanted to try to have that mix, and it seemed like north Fort Smith made sense because there are some late-shift worker employment centers there," Brewer said. "There is low income. You do have transit running through there, so it seemed to make sense to try to integrate all of those different concepts and ideas together."
A map Mitra provided incorporating information from the U.S. census shows the annual median household income for large portions of Fort Smith north of Rogers Avenue is less than $40,000.
Researchers have found low-income people have difficulty getting to their places of work or any other opportunities because they don't have a car and must rely on public transportation, Mitra said.
However, researchers also found public transportation in many cities only runs from specific locations and mainly from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, according to Mitra. Many low-income people need transportation outside of that time frame, including for work.
"Now, our idea is if we can provide them some alternative transportation, like electric bicycles or any other bicycle options, that could maybe improve their opportunity, or improve their accessibility, to go to work, to go to shopping centers, to go to health care facilities, even go to schools," Mitra said.
Community involvement and what to expect
Mitra said another aspect of the project is to develop a program through the support of the Fort Smith community, which will participate in each decision-making process. This may lead to a system that's not only economically and environmentally sustainable, but one the community can feel it owns and which could be applicable to other cities.
The University of Arkansas' community partners for this project include the Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, Fort Smith, Riverside Ride, a local bike share operator, the bicycle shop Champion Cycling, Future School of Fort Smith and the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, Mitra said.
Brewer said her organization's contributions have included helping bring stakeholders together, assisting Mitra with research on the study area, developing surveys, helping the university apply for National Science Foundation grants for the project and bringing partners to the proceedings.
"I think our role has been to facilitate collaboration and public engagement, and clearly we still have more work to do with that since we are wanting to reach out into the community," Brewer said.
The stations will include five to 10 electric bicycles, as well as a system for residents to sign in, Mitra said. Residents will be able to use the bicycles any time they want, though they will have to return them to one of the seven stations.
Those involved in the project will test different research questions and design components of the shared micromobility after it begins, including sign-in and payment systems at the stations, as well as pricing mechanisms and other things, Mitra said.
The bicycles will be available for free before three pricing and incentive strategies are tested, according to a university news release.
Mitra said data will be collected from participants during the project through evaluation surveys, more in-depth focus group interviews and travel diary surveys, the last of which will concern participating households' daily transportation patterns.
The project's other co-principal investigators include Sarah Hernandez, associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Arkansas; Rogelio Garcia Contreras, director of the Social Innovation Program in the university's Walton College of Business; and Elizabeth McClain, chief wellness officer at the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, the news release states.
National Science Foundation Funds
The National Science Foundation awarded the researchers involved with the shared micromobility for affordable-accessible housing project a $50,000 planning grant in January through its Civic Innovation Challenge program. This helped pay for community engagement that included workshops, surveys and virtual education and development sessions, with the researchers gathering data as well. The foundation awarded the project a $1 million implementation grant in September.
Source: University of Arkansas