Residents in nearly a dozen Sacramento County areas may soon be able to order a bus to their front door and have it drop them off where they want in the neighborhood – at the tap of a smartphone app and for a flat fee of $2.75.
It's a radical notion in the public transit world, unheard of just a few years ago. But the concept of public shuttle buses that act more like Uber cars is about to become a growing reality in Sacramento, at least on a test basis.
Sacramento Regional Transit, the region's main fixed-route bus and light rail service, launched the experiment locally two months ago with a pair of on-demand buses within Citrus Heights city limits.
Transit agency officials say the experimental service – called SmaRT Ride – has shown enough promise that they plan to expand it to nearly a dozen neighborhoods around the county over the next year, including the central city where they likely will face formidable competitors – Uber and the rest of the ridesharing industry that SacRT is copying.
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SacRT and other traditional bus agencies have begun testing the concept to combat several years of ridership losses to rideshare companies. A recent UC Davis report estimated ride-hailing has attracted 6 percent of bus riders nationally and 3 percent of light-rail riders.
"We got our feet wet in Citrus Heights, and it seems to be working well," SacRT operations chief Mark Lonergan said. "I think it is a tool that is here to stay."
On Monday, SacRT will expand the Citrus Heights test area to include part of nearby Antelope, as well as Orangevale and a corner of downtown Folsom, connecting there with the Historic Folsom light-rail station. That move will test whether commuters in the area are willing to use the service to connect to downtown-bound trains.
SacRT also applied last week for county transportation funds for a $400,000 test run this summer in the Franklin Boulevard area of south Sacramento, and a $1 million test in central Sacramento, where buses would serve people in downtown, midtown, the northern edges of Land Park and part of East Sacramento.
The agency also has requested grants to serve Rancho Cordova in January, Arden Arcade next April and the Sacramento State area at the end of 2019. Those could be followed by service in Carmichael, south Sacramento, Elk Grove and Folsom.
"We don’t expect them all to be successful," Lonergan said, "but we expect to learn from them all, to find out how microtransit fits into our network. "
Riders summon the shuttle via phone app or a phone call. The buses arrive within a half hour, not nearly as fast as an Uber car might. And there may be other riders aboard, meaning each trip will not travel directly to a rider's destination. The shuttle bus driver uses a computer with geocoding that determines how best to drop off riders in an efficient sequence.
Riders pay the regular transit fee, $2.75 for a single ride, $1.35 for seniors.
UC Davis transportation expert Dan Sperling, author of "Three Revolutions," a book about transportation trends, said microtransit is "conceptually a great idea," but it remains unclear whether traditional transit riders will go for it, whether it is financially viable long-term, and whether transit agencies like SacRT have the agility and entrepreneurial skill to pull it off.
The concept has yet to make money, even for industry leader Uber.
SacRT has teamed with a private company, Transloc, a North Carolina-based transportation company with expertise in “demand response” transit.
Lonergan said the early experience in Citrus Heights suggests microtransit could supplement fixed-route bus and light-rail service, and perhaps replace some poorly performing bus routes. It also could help SacRT design some new bus routes that better serve riders.
Fixed-route bus service is less expensive for SacRT to operate, officials said, but on-demand shuttles can pencil out in areas where bus ridership is low and per-passenger costs are higher.
The agency separately is rethinking all of its bus routes this year and next. It is counting on the microtransit tests to help decide how to mix and mingle new routes with on-demand SmarRT Ride service.
Many Citrus Heights riders have been retirees using the service to go to the store, the doctor, lunch and errands.
The two shuttle buses in Citrus Heights are averaging 64 riders a day, with peak days approaching 100. That compares favorably to the service SacRT was employing in that city prior to February, a Dial-A-Ride service that averaged 30 riders a day. Dial-A-Ride is similar, but requires reservations at least a day in advance.
Citrus Heights resident Viola Mares, who uses a walker, said the SmaRT Ride service allows her to get out to the store or lunch on a moment's notice. "This is the best thing they ever did for me," she said Thursday on a 10-minute bus ride from her apartment to Walmart.
Resident Joanne French, a retiree, said it means she doesn't have to walk to the bus stop. And, she said, it's inexpensive because she pays the $1.35 senior fare.
"I had one bad experience when I was going to the vet and had to wait an hour," she said. "That was poor planning." She missed her 4:30 p.m. appointment, but, "thank God, the vet waited."
"Other than that, it's pretty dependable."
French said she's never used Uber or other ride-share companies, but said her positive experiences on SmaRT Ride have caused her to consider trying the private companies on days or hours when SmaRT Ride does not operate.
Citrus Heights Mayor Steve Miller said he also is pleased with the experiment in his city, where traditional bus service has not done well.
"We may have solved the issue of public transit in suburbia," Miller said. "Or hopefully. Let's say I'm optimistic."