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The Latest Transit Trend Is Somewhere Between a Bus and Uber

Transit agencies in several cities have partnered with Via to provide curb-to-curb micro-transit. The idea behind these partnerships is to reduce barriers created by gaps in more traditional options.

A microtransit shuttle providing curb-to-curb service for Sacramento Regional Transit
One of the new microtransit shuttles providing curb-to-curb service for Sacramento Regional Transit operates in midtown Sacramento.
Submitted Photo/ Sacramento Regional Transit
Closing first-mile-last-mile gaps and reaching new riders are just some of the reasons transit agencies are tapping services that fall somewhere between a traditional bus and Uber.

Public transit operations in cities like Los Angeles; Sacramento, Calif.; Seattle and even small cities like Worcester, Mass., have partnered with transportation technology company Via to provide curb-to-curb transit-on-demand service.

Los Angeles Metro recently approved a move to expand an existing pilot project to more neighborhoods with evening and weekend service. Meanwhile SacRT, the transit provider in Sacramento, recently launched “the largest on-demand micro-transit project in the United States,” according to company officials.

“Sacramento is actually one of the fastest growing cities in California, so there was a real interest to invest in public transportation in communities underserved by its existing transit network,” said Dillon Twombly, chief revenue officer for Via.

The microtransit service, accessed with the SmaRT app, or by telephone, is available in nine districts across the Sacramento area, home to about 500,000 residents. The service provides curb-to-curb transit using “virtual bus stops” generally within about block of a rider’s origin or destination. Basic fare is $2.50 per ride, with riders able to transfer to the system’s light-rail trains or fixed-route buses.

Beyond using the service to connect to buses and trains, riders are using it "to get around their community within a service zone, for trips to the store, gym or library,” said Jessica Gonzalez, director of marketing, communications and public relations at Sacramento Regional Transit.

In Los Angeles, transit officials are expanding both the geographic reach of its microtransit, which is also a partnership with Via, as well as the making the service available on nights and weekends.

“We’ve seen significant mode-shift, bringing new folks to transit altogether and shifting from private vehicle first-last-mile trips,” Marie Sullivan, the project manager for Mobility-on-Demand, told the Los Angeles Metro Board at a recent meeting when the board approved the $4.6 million project.

“Our initial research has shown that about 9 percent of or our riders are new to transit, so there are promising signs that our partnership with Via is doing just that,” added Brian Haas, communications manager for LA Metro, in his comments to Government Technology.

LA Metro began the pilot last January, and quickly began providing up to 2,600 rides a week once residents learned about the service.

“Travelers can request an inexpensive shuttle that picks them up at a nearby corner within a few minutes. Vehicles are then dynamically routed to the final destination, picking up other travelers heading in the same direction along the way,” said Twombly, adding the service has proved especially successful in suburban settings where fixed-route bus service is not always an efficient option.

Via has partnered with transit agencies in other cities like Seattle; Arlington, Texas; and Worcester, Mass. The collaborations have largely been successful, owing to agreements in areas like data-sharing and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We’ve always been happy to collaborate with cities. We see ourselves as trying to be a part of the solution, as opposed to being combative with public transit,” said Obinna Emenike, general manager of partners at Via, speaking during a panel discussion at the CoMotion LA conference in November 2019.

These microtransit agreements are also allowing transit agencies to ramp up transitions to new transportation technologies. In Sacramento, six of the 42 shuttles used in the microtransit program are electric vehicles, with three more to come soon.

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 Yreka, Calif.