VTA seeks to pilot dynamic transit services in Sunnyvale and “the Tasman Zone”

The “last mile” between Sunnyvale’s downtown Caltrain station and the Peery Park office complex is one of the areas where VTA is seeking pilot new dynamic transit options.   The new dynamic services promise to meet underserved needs for transit connectivity and routes. The new services also create opportunities – and raise questions -about transit service integration and equity.

Sunnyvale’s Peery Park is an office park about a mile North of the downtown Caltrain station (and covering a mile to the east of the Moffett Park Light rail station).   The City is imposing fairly strong vehicle trip limits for Peery Park, with required measurement and penalties, to reduce traffic from the new developments.  Sunnyvale isn’t requiring priced parking, but is imposing maximum parking limits.

A proposed dynamic-service shuttle would provide service that is a hybrid between a fixed shuttle route and a custom route.  It would basically travel between Peery Park and Downtown, and be able to deviate to pick up and drop off at custom locations. Riders will be able to book a trip from smartphone or computer, with telephone as a backup.  During the mid-day non-commute period, the shuttles will be able to take people to lunch and errands, and serve nearby residents as well as workers.   Sunnyvale and VTA applied together for an MTC Transportation Demand Management grant to fund the pilot.

Likely the first location for a dynamic service pilot, starting as soon as this fall, is “the Tasman Zone,” a region in North San Jose and Santa Clara with offices and housing roughly bounded by 237, Montague Expressway, Guadalupe River, and Coyote Creek. Another way to look at the Tasman Zone is the area of the VTA light rail map containing the Champion, Tasman, Cisco, and River Oaks stations. The exact boundaries of the service area will be worked out as part of the pilot project.

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Sunnyvale Peery Park Last Mile and the Tasman Zone are among a set of pilots that VTA is planning to conduct, testing different locations and service models for dynamic transit services.  Other use cases for dynamic transit that VTA might may pilot include medium and long-distance express shuttles for high tech employment campuses, and connections for areas with dense housing.

VTA’s dynamic transit pilots will not compete with the “any to any” ride-hail services provided by Uber and Lyft or ParaTransit service – where a driver will take a passenger to any destination – but will focus on a specific area, with varying pickup and/or dropoff locations.      The pilots will use recommissioned “community bus” vehicles that can carry up to 26 passengers, with bike racks and a wheelchair lift.

VTA’s business goals for the program are to increase overall transit ridership with connections to core bus and rail services, and to improve cost per passenger and fare recovery rates compared to the VTA average.

The technology for the pilot program will be provided by RideCell.   The technology provides interfaces for smart phone, web and phone call, and gives riders with real-time vehicle tracking and schedule information, with purchasing features including subscription, reservation, and pre-payment.  The technology provides VTA with optimized routing and vehicle scheduling services to create the specific route on the fly based on customer requests.    RideCell won the contract for the pilot based on an RFP, which received interest from startups (TransLoc, RideCell) as well as giants including IBM and Siemens. 

A different take on dynamic services is being pursued by Palo Alto’s emerging Transportation Management Association, which is exploring partnerships with ride-hail services Lyft and Uber to provide and subsidize first-last mile transit connections, and possibly short carpool commutes, in order to reduce downtown congestion and parking demand.

In recent years, the private sector has been outcompeting public transit with private shuttles and flexible first/last mile transit connections. The tech giants running long-distance shuttle routes have received criticism for filling gaps that were left by the public transit system.  Meanwhile, two for-profit companies seeking provide express bus service, RidePal which market to office parks, and LEAP, a peak-hour premium commute bus connecting San Francisco Marina neighborhood to the Financial district, recently went of business.

Public transit services, or public/private partnerships, could potentially pursue gaps in the market that would increase transit ridership, without the burden faced by RidePal and LEAP to make a profit and provide returns to investors.  People often ask whether private companies with dynamic technology and data-driven routes will make public transit obsolete. But there are also opportunities for the public sector to take advantage of the technologies to provide better service that is available to more people.

VTA’s pilot raises a number of questions and concerns.

  • Integrated payment. One of the goals of the program is to explore opportunities for better last mile connections to core rail and bus routes. While the pilot provides better-integrated service to light rail and Caltrain, the payment experience will be the opposite of integrated.  During the pilot period, riders will not be able to pay with Clipper, the Bay Area’s common transit card, and the Clipper system is notoriously inflexible regarding testing out new pricing mechanisms. It may take until 2019 with Clipper 2.0 before these types of services can be paid for with Clipper.
  • Integrated fares. VTA will be testing out a variety of fare structures, but it seems as though VTA may be seeking to charge a premium price for the last-mile transit connection.  If so this strategy will be taking the opposite direction to Stanford University’s extremely successful fully subsidized Marguerite shuttle system, which without any dynamic features to date, enables nearly a 25% Caltrain mode share for University employees, at no cost to riders.
  • Equitable access for workers.   VTA is defining the goals of the pilot as increasing overall transit ridership and increasing farebox recovery while considering equity.  An issue to consider, in balancing these goals, is the fact that Santa Clara County has large numbers of low-income workers who commute by car because the public transit system is not cost-effective for their needs. In the Sunnyvale pilot, VTA will be working with the emerging Transportation Management Association, potentially bringing in employer and developer funding.  Can funds be used and the service be priced so that people who are janitors and food service workers can afford efficient transit, not just engineers and managers?
  • Equitable access for residents. One of the markets that VTA is considering serving is “ “housing clusters near major transit stations/stops.”  Will the goal to improve farebox recovery steer the service toward only market rate new housing developments? Or will the pricing structure and service model also reach out to lower-income neighborhood that are dense, not far from major transit stations, and currently have a high rate of driving?
  • Inter-county service.  While VTA touts the fact that 80% of Santa Clara County commuters stay within the County, Apple contends that more than half of their long-distance shuttles cross county lines.  Will VTA’s interest in data-driven routes lead it to more actively work to reduce barriers to inter-county service?

Which, if any, of the service models will be effective in attracting riders? How can VTA best balance its goals of ridership, revenue, and equity?   VTA is planning on experimentation, and the pilots will help answer these questions.

What’s next? Following a round of public review, VTA will return to the VTA Committees and Board of Directors in October present final recommendations for the Pilot program regarding the service plan, fare structure, equity analysis, and additional pilots to implement in the future.