Silicon Valley experiments with public buses that work like Uber
The VTA Flex pilot program ended on July 1. VTA's Chief Technology Officer Gary Miskell says they are examining other ways to deploy on-demand transit. When we reported on Flex, the challenges in providing such transit were already visible.
Moises Olmedo, a software engineer, used to leave 50 minutes to get to work by public transit. He would walk or bike to the light rail station, wait for the train, ride for 20 minutes, and then walk the rest of the way to his job at Cisco. All this despite living just three miles away.
Now he has a different routine.
“It’s perfect,” he says. “I just walk outside my home, and the bus takes like five minutes to get there.”
Olmedo is an early adopter of Flex, an on-demand bus program that launched in January. When he’s ready to go to work, he brings up an app on his phone and tells it to come pick him up.
The interface is familiar to anyone who’s used Lyft or Uber. But Flex is run by the VTA, the public transportation authority here in the South Bay.
For now, Flex only works in a limited area of about six square miles. Luckily, Olmedo’s in the right place — there are pickup spots right by his home and by his job.
The app tells him to walk down the block, where, instead of a bus stop, there’s a square decal on the sidewalk. It looks like an app logo – actually, it matches the one on Olmedo’s phone.
A small black bus with the same blue and green designs comes down the street, and he gets on board.
A slow start
When two or more people request a similar route, the buses turn into a kind of computer-optimized carpool system. Ideally, the software figures out the most efficient way to take everyone where they need to go.
But when Olmedo gets on this morning, he’s the only passenger there.
“It’s usually like this, all mornings,” he says. “It’s like a big truck just for me.”
The driver, a VTA employee named Roman Garcia, enjoys driving these shifts. Since there are so few riders on Flex so far, he gets to have “more one-on-one conversations.”
That wasn’t the plan for Flex buses, which have the capacity to carry 26 riders.
The VTA hasn’t released official ridership numbers. VTA spokesperson Hendler Ross says they’re “pleasantly surprised with how well it's working,” but estimates that “a few dozen people a day in the morning and in the afternoon commute times that are using it.”
In transportation, change sometimes happens slowly.
Aarjav Trivedi is the founder of RideCell, the company that designed the software for Flex. He comes from the fast paced world of tech. And when he started to work with public transit agencies, he was surprised to hear how long it took for riders to start using a new transit option. Even something as simple as a new bus route could take two years to evaluate.
“I have a 16-month-old,” Trivedi says. “I can tell you that if there was a very compelling new service like the VTA Flex in my area, I wouldn't be able to try it the very next day.”
Flex has only been around for a few months. And it’s not just a new bus, it’s a totally new service to get used to.
“At least in the beginning,” he says, a potential rider is “not even sure how the whole thing works.”
A “last mile” alternative
Moises Olmedo moved here from Mexico City in August. He says he’s one of the few employees at Cisco without a car. Flex works well for him because it takes him door to door.
“At least for me it’s very convenient,” he says. “For the people living nearby it’s very convenient.”
The VTA is hoping to attract more long-distance commuters too.
“We're really trying to encourage them to get out of their cars,” says spokesperson Hendler Ross, and “really look at public transportation as a primary option.”
The puzzle-piece-shaped area of the pilot program is home to many tech offices – Cisco, Samsung, Qualcomm, and others. Light rail comes through the area, but not right up to most people’s offices.
Hendler Ross hopes more long distance commuters will take light rail into the area, and use Flex to travel the last leg into work. “It's a first and last mile connection resource,” she says.
But it’s hard to break the driving habit.
A transit agency that thinks like a startup
Aarjav Trivedi, of RideCell, says “we tend to judge government harshly here in America.” And while he says we should have high expectations, “if we want our government to innovate – and government will have to innovate in the face of so many changes – then we have to give our government agencies the ability to try new things and sometimes fail.”
Trivedi says that despite being one of the largest transportation agencies in the country, VTA "function[s] very much like a startup.” High-level officials went on the road with him, testing routes and algorithms for the Flex service.
In 2013, Helsinki, the capital of Finland, became the first city to experiment with on-demand public transit buses. The program was called Kutsuplus. Kutsuplus grew quickly, and registered 21,000 users. But after two years, the city decided it was too expensive, and shut it down.
Moises Olmedo does have some complaints. He says there were a few glitches when Flex was new, when the bus just didn’t show up. He remembers one time, checking his phone, and looking down the road.
“I could see the bus, like two miles away,” says Olmedo, “like a very very tiny bus, but it didn’t move.”
He waited half an hour, gave up, and took an Uber.