Many public transit users have faced the prospect of an hourlong trip to travel a short distance. From the walk to the bus stop, having to transfer routes and endure repetitive stops, a five-mile trip can take over an hour in less densely populated areas.
But West Sacramento thinks it has the answer. By partnering with ride share company Via, the city plans to cut down on the time and effort necessary to a navigate the public transit system.
Under a pilot program, Via will deploy a fleet of vans that will function like a hybrid of ride share and buses. Up to 10 Mercedes-Benz vans are scheduled to hit the streets in spring 2018. The city approved the initial one-year program last week and is set to approve a full contract with Via in December. Via is based in New York and also operates in Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Like Lyft or Uber, a rider will be able to use an app to set pickup and dropoff locations. Like a bus, the van will pick up several riders and make multiple stops. A rider may be asked to walk a block or two, but the city is trying to avoid the half-mile walk required for some public transit riders to get to their stops.
Via specializes in shared rides rather than individual customers, CEO Daniel Ramot said in an email. The app’s algorithm is designed to match multiple riders going in the same direction on a route devised in real time to minimize delays.
Some beneficiaries of the pilot will be the residents of the recent development projects along West Sacramento’s riverfront that cater to young people who don’t own cars. Along with this new service, the city has pushed bike share programs and other public transit options as the Bridge District swells with new residents.
Destinations will have to be within the city of West Sacramento, as the program is not intended to directly compete with Uber or Lyft, Cabaldon said. The two biggest ride share companies will still be the main options for crossing the river into Sacramento.
Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said he wants the system to appeal to both people are giving up way too much time to ride the bus right now and those who are going to places the bus doesn’t reach.
“(A one-way trip) could easily take you an hour, an hour and a half, and then we ask why people don’t ride the bus,” he said.
While the fee structure hasn’t been set, Cabaldon said the goal is to have the service cost about the same as taking a Yolobus. The city currently contracts with Yolo County to provide bus services.
The pilot program will cost about $700,000, funded by a grant from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and voter-approved city innovation funds.
West Sacramento is not trying to makes buses obsolete – Cabaldon said there may be incentives for people who are using Via to get to the bus stop or a bike share hub. He sees the systems as complementary. If the city could run fewer “ghost buses,” or routes with very few riders, and beef up the main routes, it could make public transit more profitable and reliable.
It’s also aimed at people using Paratransit services, the specialized service for people with disabilities. Cabaldon said Paratransit can cost a public agency between $30 and $40 a ride, but many people who use the service don’t need the high level of care provided. Those riders are elderly or disabled people who can’t make the walk to the bus stop, but can get to the car on their own.
People will be able to reserve a seat on the new Via service over the phone as well.
That’s important because it is not meant only for people already using Uber or Lyft “but also for people for whom that’s not a choice,” Cabaldon said. “Public transit is their only option, plus the folks that don’t have smartphones with data access.”