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Voice of On-Demand: David Stillman, Transit Manager of the City of Cupertino, California

Hear from an 18-year transit veteran on what a new transportation mode means for his city, and what comes next.

Manyu Jiang •

Spotlight on: As an 18-year veteran of the City of Cupertino, David Stillman is focused on improving transit and city infrastructure. He and his team oversee Silicon Valley Hopper, Cupertino's on-demand microtransit program, and a recent recipient of an $8.5M grant from TIRCP (Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program). We spoke to him about what this investment in innovative transportation means to his city, and what's next.

The benefits of a turnkey microtransit solution.

  • Tell us a bit about your career path and how you navigate your professional progression as a transit leader over the years.

DS: I started as a structural engineer and then transitioned into traffic and transportation management, because I wanted to apply my skills towards a way that would provide real-world and immediate benefits for the community. And traffic and transportation management allowed me to do that.

It’s only been within the past few years that we started focusing on transit and microtransit. I feel this is a natural progression that can help me address a lot of the challenges that are facing the community.

  • We know the service has been a huge success in many ways. Recently Mayor Mohan even highlighted the service in her State of the City speech. She says it is connecting residents to easy and cost-effective transportation. What inspired you and your team to introduce microtransit service at the very beginning? 

DS: It goes back to 2007 when we wanted to reduce congestion in the tri-school area in Cupertino. There are three public schools located within just a few blocks of each other. It's very congested. However, there wasn’t a very effective approach to solving that problem.

In 2018 we did a community survey, which showed there was a community desire to look into first- and last-mile transit solutions. Though we have a lot of fixed route transit available in the area provided by VTA bus and Caltrain rail service, the lines are spread out because of the suburban nature of the area. It’s not so easy to get to the stops for the fixed-route lines. There was widespread support for a community-based, app-based on-demand microtransit system. 

David Stillman
“Unless you have dedicated staff that has experience in this field, you want to look for somebody like Via that has that experience, full-time staff, and can provide that service for you and make sure it runs smoothly. That's key to the success we've had in Cupertino.”
David Stillman — Transit Manager of Cupertino, California
  • Why did the team want to find a turnkey microtransit provider like Via?

DS: In Cupertino, we have a pretty lean staff and we are unable to devote significant resources to run a transit system, so we were interested in finding somebody like Via, who can manage it for us and we just provide contractual oversight of the provider. The solution that was most appealing both to the council and the staff was a turnkey solution, hiring a provider like Via, that could do all aspects of program management, procuring or leasing the vehicles, and maintaining the vehicles.

  • How is investment in transit compared to other Investments a city could make to improve job access? How does the city think about the return of investment with transit?

DS: The way the city looks at investment is not in terms of revenue from farebox recovery; there's seldom a good return on farebox revenue for any kind of transit. But we look at investment in terms of the boost to the local economy that we achieved from the service, improving access to jobs; sales tax revenue from being able to provide transportation to and from shopping and other needs; there are social benefits from having more equitable access to healthcare, such as Kaiser Hospital, and education centers as well. De Anze College is one of our most popular destinations in the service.

Moreover, there are environmental benefits, such as reducing congestion and lowering carbon emissions. All of these improve people's quality of life, which we consider a significant return on investment.

  • What are the unique advantages of microtransit, compared to traditional fixed route services? 

DS: Microtransit service offers a lot of flexibility over fixed route transit service, in that we can provide first- and last-mile connections. It's also scalable, so you can expand or contract the service as needed, based on demand. The service expansion we're undergoing right now is the perfect example.  We started in Cupertino; now, we're serving half of Santa Clara we're going to expand further into Santa Clara later. We're also in discussions with the City of Sunnyvale to evaluate the feasibility of expanding service there.

Being able to target the service towards communities that are underserved or in need is certainly another advantage of microtransit.


Taking transit into the city's own hands.

  • Did you coordinate with local transit agencies at all when making decisions about service design? Why or why not?

DS: We didn't. Our local transit agencies such as Caltrain or VTA (Valley Transportation Authority) have a lot of momentum in terms of the services they provide. We wanted to take control and hit the ground running, use our service to fill the gaps in the existing fixed transit services, rather than try to coordinate with these larger services. It was a much more efficient way to do it.

As our service expands and becomes more robust, maybe there'll be opportunities to coordinate with VTA or other transit providers, but for now, we're going alone along with Santa Clara as a partner.

  • Can you advise a city that's also interested in doing its own transit service without help from an agency?

DS: Unless you have dedicated staff that has experience in this field, you want to look for somebody like Via that has that experience, that has that full-time staff, that can provide that service for you on an ongoing basis, and work autonomously to take care of things and make sure that the service runs smoothly. That's key to the success we've had in Cupertino.

Breaking transit silos, expanding regional connectivity.

  • How does cross-regional deployment of microtransit work? 

DS: The expansion with Santa Clara has gone very well. The primary contract with Via is through Cupertino, so Cupertino is the conduit through which all project management responsibilities flow. Santa Clara is a partner through a cooperative funding agreement with Cupertino. 

This is beneficial for many reasons. For example, instead of having multiple agencies all apply for the same grant and competing with each other over the same service, having just one agency as the responsible agency makes that process a lot more efficient and, in the end, a lot more successful.

As far as cities looking to expand, I would recommend doing a similar collaboration approach, because it simplifies the communication and the project management quite a bit, to have a single point of contact or point of responsibility with Via. It also simplifies other aspects of managing the program like applying for grants.

  • How did the team decide to collaborate with Santa Clara, among many other neighboring communities?

DS: We decided to team up with Santa Clara as it’s the community that expressed the most interest and ultimately agreed to partner at the time. But recently other communities have expressed interest such as Sunnyvale. We're hoping to widen our coverage area in the next couple years.

Funding, and everything about money.

  • Getting $8,500,000 funding for a small city like Cupertino is amazing. How did you and the team approach funding?

DS: The service was funded through the state's greenhouse gas reduction fund — TIRCP (Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program), which is intended to help communities that want to encourage rail transit use.

We knew we would have a very competitive application as we're serving Caltrain stations. It also allowed us to transition from our gas-powered fleet to an electric fleet, helping to achieve the state's greenhouse gas reduction goals. We also realized it was a great opportunity to bring Santa Clara on board. So the pieces seemed to fall into place and we were ultimately successful. We also appreciate Via’s assistance with the identification of grant opportunities and completing the grant applications.

  • What’s the city’s funding plan for the future?

DS: Right now, we're looking at potential TFCA funding and another grant from the EPA in cooperation with VTA and neighboring cities. These require a lot of analysis, such as emissions reductions we are expecting from the program. Via has been very helpful in assisting us in this regard.

Looking forward.

  • Congratulations on hitting 100,000 all-time rides through the service! What are the most memorable moments of launching, operating, and managing SV Hopper? 

DS: We had an art contest with our high school students in Santa Clara and Cupertino to develop a design for our new fleet of electric vehicles. We got a couple dozen submissions, and my staff and Santa Clara staff chose a few submittals that encompassed the message that we were trying to give to the community about our service. And Via was able to merge those ideas and turn it into a vehicle wrap.

I remember the first time I saw one of those wrapped vehicles with the student art on the street and I thought, wow, this is something that came from the heart of the community. And it was just a wonderful feeling to see that.

  • What’s your next goal for SV Hopper? 

DS: To secure additional partnerships, both for funding opportunities and for further service expansions. Expansion is simple with Via, with some additional funding, and a contract amendment, you can expand as wide as you want. You can't do those things quite as easily with the infrastructure or fixed-route transit solutions. Ultimately our goal would be the creation of a regional service that seamlessly complements the County’s existing transit network.

In Cupertino and lots of communities in the US, transit is not part of the culture. It's not in the mindset here and we want to change that.

Manyu Jiang avatar
Manyu Jiang

Via Resource Editor