Free Shuttle Programs Have Found Their Place in Busy Cities

What started as a whimsical, almost gimmicky idea has become an integral part of connecting travelers to other modes of transportation

The buses may be small, but their appeal seems to be growing.
Small electric shuttles — both human-driven and robot-operated — are taking to streets in numerous cities from Long Beach to the Hamptons in New York state, offering short, low-speed trips, and often connecting passengers to other transit options or simply moving them through tiny downtown districts.
The Free Ride operates small electric vehicles in service areas that cover up to a couple of square miles in 15 cities. The rides — as the name all but screams — are free, can be hailed via a mobile app.
“We focus on first-mile, last-mile situations where we can bridge gaps between parking lots and existing mass-transit hubs,” said Alex Esposito, one of the founders of The Free Ride. “Buses and trains work great when moving in and out of downtown areas but tend to cause traffic, congestion and pollution when used in dense, downtown areas.”
The electric open-air vehicles can be found in urban, pedestrian-heavy locations like downtown San Diego, Long Beach and Santa Monica, Calif.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Austin, Texas; and the West Village in Manhattan.
In Long Beach, the service began as a pilot partnership in April 2018, and after some tweaking of times and days of operation, has since gone on to become a regular service, said April Walker, a community projects officer with the Long Beach Public Works Department.
“The Free Ride is going to lessen congestion and is a great addition of environmentally friendly vehicles to our city,” said Long Beach Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez in a city press release.
To avoid the kerfuffles that have erupted in other cities around new app-based mobility platforms like bike and scooter rentals, company officials say they check in with cities to ensure the service is not flying in the face of city codes and regulations.
“Permits, insurance and regulations change a bit for every market,” said Esposito. “Our approach to expansion has been to work with municipalities prior to entering a market to make sure we're operating correctly, and in some cases the municipalities lend financial support.”
“We're less invasive and more cost-effective than most forms of other transportation,” he added. In Long Beach, city officials confirmed The Free Ride has been asked to obtain a business license.
The small electric vehicles used by the service are made by Polaris Industries and can travel about 75 miles on a charge. Most rides last about a mile, said Esposito.
Our biggest coverage area is just a little over three miles across,” he added.
The service operates largely as an on-demand, door-to-door service within a specific service area.
In some cases we aggregate riders at corners, but have moved away from fixed stops,” said Esposito. 
In cities like Las Vegas; Columbus, Ohio; Austin; Providence, R.I.; Gainsville, Fla.; and others, autonomous shuttle vehicles are either already being tested, or are in the works. 
The Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority (LAVTA) in the Bay Area in California is exploring the launch of an autonomous shuttle demonstration project in Dublin, Calif., using “shared autonomous vehicles” (SAV), which are shaped like rectangular cubes on wheels that can accommodate up to about 12 passengers. The project would partner with the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA), GoMentum Station and electric AV shuttle maker Stantec.
GoMentum Station in nearby Concord is managed by the CCTA, and has become the site of the largest secure AV testing area in the United States. The AV shuttle company EasyMile has also been testing its vehicles and technology at Bishop Ranch, a mixed-use business park in nearby San Ramon.
The Livermore Valley Transit project proposes connecting the Dublin/Pleasanton Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station with two SAVs to a bus-rapid-transit route a few blocks away. The shuttles would include a human driver to oversee the operation.
The pilot marks an opportunity for a transit agency to look to small autonomous shuttles as a way to close existing first-mile, last-mile gaps, while also exploring other business and operational questions.
“It’ll help answer that business model question,” Randy Iwasaki, CCTA executive director, said. “But ultimately, we’ve got to get the transit agencies interested in this technology if it’s to provide more people accessing their buses and subways.”
In many suburban areas, such as those in East Bay counties, like Contra Costa or Alameda, commuters have few first-mile, last-mile options.
“There’s no first- and last-mile options — other than Uber — in many suburban applications,” said Iwasaki. “And so, it works in Contra Costa County, it works everywhere. Now what we’re trying to understand is what is the business model that will support that technology in the future.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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