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Where Bus Routes Fail, Cities Turn to On-Demand Solutions

Cupertino, Calif., is one of the latest communities to launch an on-demand transit program, where a shuttle will take you wherever you want to go for $5 a ride. The program could cut the need for a costly fixed bus route.

Communities across the country are moving forward with on-demand transit options, as they aim to meet public needs through more innovative approaches which do not require a large, fixed-route bus.

“The on-demand transit model is proving to be the best solution for suburban and low-density communities,” said Andy Ambrosius, a spokesman for Via, a private-sector provider of on-demand transit. “That's the key challenge for cities today, because as cities grow, it becomes difficult to continue to build affordable, efficient and reliable public transportation.”

Via counts more than two dozen partnerships with cities, transit agencies and universities across North America. The service works similar to other on-demand transportation options like Uber or Lyft, where riders access Via with an app, and generally pay a flat fee for transportation within a prescribed service area.

One of the most recent partnerships to be announced is in Cupertino, Calif. The Bay Area hamlet is probably best known as the headquarters for Apple, and has developed along largely suburban patterns with little density.

“We don’t have like, a downtown per se, a lot of logical places people want to go,” said Chris Corrao, Cupertino transportation planner.

The area is also not well connected to regional public transit systems like Caltrain, though officials advocate for an eventual fixed-route service to nearby San Jose, allowing riders to connect to regional rail networks.

“But that’s a long-term, expensive undertaking. It could take decades, honestly,” Corrao remarked. “And we want to do something right away to help address traffic congestion and air pollution and other issues.”

Roughly 60,000 residents live in the 11-square-mile service area. The daytime population of Cupertino surges to about 150,000 people, given the employers in the area. Fares for the new Via service are $5 per ride. The city is offering $2.50 fares for elderly, low-income and student riders. Deeply discounted weekly ($17, four rides per day,) and monthly ($60) passes are also available. The fare goes to the city, and essentially subsidizes the city’s costs for the service, which are set at $1.7 million for the 18-month pilot.

“From the user perspective, it’s really public transit,” said Corrao. “It’s really just a different model, where it’s on-demand. It’s more flexible. We think it meets the modern needs of commuters better than the traditional model, especially for a community like Cupertino.”

Lone Tree, Colo., a suburb of Denver that is home to about 15,000 residents, has also been operating a similar pilot project with Via, known as Link On Demand, since February 2019. Since its launch, residents and commuters have taken “tens of thousands of rides,” say officials.

“Expanded transportation options and congestion relief are top priorities for Lone Tree residents and businesses,” Mayor Jackie Millet said in a statement.

The service makes free shuttle service available to any location in the city limits. Much of ridership comes from commuters journeying to large corporate campuses like Kaiser Permanente or Charles Schwab from light rail stations, serving a first-mile, last-mile need. Roughly a quarter of Lone Tree’s population has downloaded the Via app. And the service provides about 1,000 rides per week. 

“Servicing parts of a community’s population with fixed bus routes that may only arrive every hour just to say every resident has access to public transit is not the solution, and an increasing number of cities are recognizing this,” said Ambrosius.

In September, Via struck up a similar six-month project in Birmingham, Ala., to offer on-demand shared rides for $1.50 to fill gaps where conventional public transit may be lacking. The app directs riders to a “virtual bus stop” — such as a nearby street corner — where they are met by one of Via’s shuttle vans.

“I think from our perspective — and we’re open to lots of different ideas, and evolutions of transit,” said Corrao in Cupertino, “I think this is one of those sort of private-sector responses to this demand that we’re seeing for new ideas in transportation. And we’re just thinking that this is one that fits well with our community.”

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.