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Bay Area cities take microtransit for a spin

Two Bay Area communities share their experience launching on-demand transportation services in public-private partnerships.

Via Transportation •

The dominance of the private car can’t be overstated: 85% of Americans use one and 90% of them do so alone. The consequences are familiar: congestion, overloaded infrastructure, and higher emissions. These issues are front and center in the Bay Area, where transit authorities are working to address them with the region’s characteristic ingenuity. One strategy many are considering is microtransit — also referred to on-demand public transportation or demand-responsive transit. To this end, Via organized an event with the Bay Area Council to give our local partners an opportunity to share their experiences with microtransit.

Cutting down on cars in Cupertino

Not long ago, Chris Corrao, Senior Transportation Planner for the City of Cupertino, had to face a hard reality. His city, a suburb located west of San Jose in Silicon Valley, had the highest drive-alone rate in the county. “That’s not a stat you want,” Corrao said. “Initially, we thought about adding a fixed-route shuttle, but community surveys told us that wouldn’t work. Residents said they wanted fast, efficient service to other transit options, as well as something their kids could use to get to and from school. The routes we looked at were an hour and 20 minutes, which is not going to get anyone out of their car. We realized an on-demand shuttle would be the best option.”

Cupertino launched its service using Via’s turnkey solution, or transport as a service (TaaS), which combines the software with the operational side, including drivers and vehicles. The service connects the city to the region’s rapidly growing transit network, including Caltrain. “Via has a really nice package with Mercedes Metris vans and their algorithm, or the ‘secret sauce,’” Corrao said. “For a city like ours, which is not in the business of providing public transit, a turnkey system is very appealing. Long-term, our goal is to get residents and visitors accustomed to a transit lifestyle while still advocating for hard infrastructure.”

Improving accessibility in Marin

Nancy Whelan, General Manager of Marin Transit, was focused on a much narrower issue. She had identified a large population of paratransit users who needed better service in San Rafael, a community of 58,000 in the North Bay. “We wanted to give riders same-day service instead of having them call a day ahead,” she said. “We also wanted to address the commuter market and use the first/last mile to reach people who might not otherwise take the SMART train or express bus.” Given the population, accessible vehicles were mandatory. But TNCs like Uber and Lyft could not provide them. This led Whelan to Via and an 18-month pilot that has generated so much data it “makes my head explode,” she said. “We learned that 7% of people using the service had never used Marin Transit before,” she said. “That resonated with our board because getting new riders is so hard to do. I like to say this is the ‘most pilot-y pilot’ we’ve ever done, because we had no idea what we were going to learn—but we’ve learned an amazing amount.”

What is clear from these stories is that every community has unique transit needs. This is exactly why microtransit can be so effective. Its flexibility allows it to live and grow within a wide variety of transportation ecosystems.