SPRINGDALE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Northwest Arkansas’ free public transportation system is making some changes to give riders a better experience.

The Walton Family Foundation funded a study of each of Ozark Regional Transit’s 428 bus stops. Jeff Hatley with ORT said the study showed many bus stops are in need of upgrades such as sidewalks, shelter, and benches.

“We can get you anywhere in Northwest Arkansas, but you’ve got to get on the bus. If your local bus stop is basically a ditch with no sidewalk, it’s very, very hard just to access the bus. So those are some key things we’re looking at,” said Hatley.

Hatley said they’re upgrading the bus stops with the most need first, such as those in high-traffic areas where there’s only a sign on the side of a road. The goal is to make all the stops more accessible and safe for riders, especially for those in wheelchairs or those who have visual or hearing impairments.

Hatley said they’re also using the grant money to create a social media presence, in hopes more people learn about its free services. He said ridership increased by 25 percent last year compared to 2021, and they only expect that number to grow.

Another change that’s propelled by the Walton Family Foundation is adding more on-demand transit that ditches the traditional bus stop and allows you to use your phone to schedule a bus to pick you up at home.

The on-demand service works similarly to Uber or Lyft, except it’s free. Hatley said the need for that service continues to grow, so they’re bolstering its number of on-demand buses.

On Monday, Hatley said 10 percent of rides were denied because there wasn’t any available, which forced some people to wait up to two hours to get a ride. By adding one bus in Bentonville on Tuesday, he said that the percentage of denied rides went down to 0.9 percent.

Hatley said the rest of the cities in NWA are asking for on-demand to be more available as well.

“The on-demand transit works so much better in rural areas, and more residential area to be a combined system for the on-demand transit to feed the fixed routes. That’s actually where we see on-demand transit and ORT going in the near future,” said Hatley.

Hatley said the majority of its ridership still uses ORT’s fixed routes, but it’s going to keep shaking things up by removing fixed routes and adding on-demand buses based on each city’s need. In Bentonville for example, riders can now get to Crystal Bridges by using on-demand services, since there are no fixed routes that’ll take you there.

Hately said every Northwest Arkansas city has come up with a 10-year plan for its transportation system in hopes they can get ahead of the area’s growth.