By Meghan Hall
Commuting in the Bay Area is tedious for many and results in both a lot of time—and money. While there are numerous inter-agency transportation plans in the works in an effort to leverage and improve upon the region’s existing transportation infrastructure, the City of Cupertino is taking a new approach to provide its residents with alternate modes of transit. Beginning today, the city is launching Via-Cupertino: an on-demand shuttle service that provides transportation anywhere in Cupertino and Sunnyvale CalTrain. City officials hope that the pilot program, which will last 18 months, will provide Cupertino residents with an easy, less expensive means of transportation.
According to Cupertino Project Manager Chris Corrao, the idea initially arose after a 2018 transportation study, in which officials sought community input. “There has always been this idea of having a community shuttle,” explained Corrao. “We did this survey last summer, and there was a really high response rate, much higher than we anticipated. And people in the survey mention that the City should look at some other type of arrangement that could potentially save money and serve as a faster alternative [to other ride-sharing services].”
City officials did initially consider a partnership with ride-sharing companies such as Lyft or Uber, but opted out due to feedback the City received from the Mountain View Transportation Management Association (TMA), who as of April 2019 was engaged in a Mid-Day Mobility Pilot Program of its own. City documents show that the TMA generally recommended against partnering with ride-share companies such as Lyft or Uber due to the lack of trip data provided to the city by Lyft and Uber. The lack of data has also made it difficult, TMA noted, to determine whether or not the trips were shared rides as intended by the program.
In evaluating other options, Cupertino transportation officials decided to proceed using Via: an on-demand, community shuttle. All assets, including the fleet’s Mercedes Metris vans, are provided by the vendor.
“We had reached out to a number of different companies, like more traditional, fixed-ground shuttles to on-demand companies, and that kind of led us to realizes Via would be good for a place like Cupertino that is really suburban and spread out,” said Corrao.
Traditional shuttle services with fixed routes would operate on loops that took more than an hour and twenty minutes, something which Cupertino was hoping to minimize. Via, however, takes riders from designated pick-up locations to anywhere in the city. Users can request rides using an app, or by phone if the user does not have a smartphone.
“Via is really the only company out there doing ride sharing in its own vehicle; it’s not like Lyft or Uber,” continued Corrao. “You are not in someone’s personal vehicle with this, you are in [a company] van. They’re kind of a turn-key system, and for a small city like Cupertino, that is really appealing because we’re small.”
Weekly passes, which allow for up to four rides per day, are $17, while monthly passes are $60. Reduced rate fares for seniors, students and low-income riders are $2.50 per ride. The vans are equipped with bike racks, and mobility-impaired riders can request door-to-door service.
“The vans are really nice,” said Corrao. “They are really like a luxury experience, kind of like a tech shuttle, but for the masses. They feel very nice for a publicly funded transit option.”
The City has set aside $1.75 million to subsidize van ridership, although Corrao estimates that with fares collected, that number will likely come down with $1.5 million, perhaps even less if city officials can procure grants to further help with operating costs. Currently, Cupertino is starting with six vans and is contracted to scale up to 10 in the coming months. However, Corrao predicts that based on community feedback, the program will be popular with all types of people, and that the city will need more vehicles to accommodate demand.
“What is interesting is that at the outset, we thought it would appeal to groups such as seniors, and as we have gone through public outreach, we are hearing from groups we did not expect,” said Corrao. “There’s a lot of demand from Caltrain riders and even students, too.”
Corrao added on, saying, “I think because this is a publicly subsidized program, we are able to bring the fares down to be similar to a transit fair. I think that the ridership will be higher.”
Via Cupertino launches today, and the pilot program will wrap up in the spring of 2021.