Mercedes-Benz vans or public buses? How West Sacramento residents are getting to the grocery store

Last Friday, senior citizen Gail Hoffman faced a dilemma common in the daily lives of those without cars: She needed groceries, but didn’t want to wait for the bus.

Hoffman, 80, summoned a Via ride share van, an option hundreds of West Sacramento residents have tried in recent months as the city tests a point-to-point “microtransit” system as an alternative to traditional public transportation.

“I just need to run to the store for one darn thing,” Hoffman said sitting in a black Mercedes-Benz six-passenger vehicle on her way to Raley’s. “And here they are picking me up and bringing me back hopefully right after I buy one thing.”

Hoffman’s trip is one of about 240 made each day by residents using the fleet of seven shared vans that are part of a one-year pilot program run by ride-share company Via and West Sacramento. The program is now about halfway through the trial period, and a recent report released by the city showed the Via vans are more popular than anticipated, especially with older residents like Hoffman and younger people without licenses, said West Sacramento assistant transportation planner Sarah Strand.

The service has exceeded its initial estimates of about 200 rides a day, according to the report. The vans have been used for more than 20,000 rides, with about 15 percent of those journeys involving seniors and disabled passengers. Along with Raley’s, some of the most popular stops include River City High School, Wal-Mart and local restaurants.

The pilot program costs $749,000, with the majority of funds coming from state and local transportation funding, including a $149,000 grant from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

More than 70 percent of riders have used the service more than once.

“It’s a godsend,” said Delores Mohler.

Mohler, 86, took a Via van last week to reach the Social Security Administration office. Her mobility scooter makes many other forms of transit difficult, she said, but Via has a handicap accessible van, and the service picks her up and drops her off at her front door.

“I have to depend on so many others for transportation and so many things need to be done during the day when my rides are not available,” Mohler said. Before Via, she said “I didn’t go to a lot of places I wanted to go.”

The prices for Via rides are currently closer to a bus fare than an Uber ride. The flat rate is $3.50 per trip, and a weekly pass is $10 and can be used up four times a day, or as cheap as 42 cents per ride. Seniors and disabled individuals pay half that cost.

Those low prices have the service operating at a loss, according to the staff report. It recommended raising the fare to $15 for a weekly pass, but keeping the 50 percent discount for seniors and disabled riders.

West Sacramento isn’t the first city in the region to try blending public transportation with newer app-based ride-share services. Sacramento also offers a limited on-demand bus service that aims to connect riders to fixed-route public transit lines.

Microtransit services have also been used in large cities including Washington D.C., Detroit and Boston, but few have been tried in a city as small as West Sacramento with the same degree of success, in part because parking is more abundant and distances shorter, giving residents other options and making cars more attractive than in congested cities.

According to UC Davis transportation researcher Giovanni Circella, whether the Via model has a long-term benefit for West Sacramento remains an unknown.

“Is this a success story? Honestly I don’t know,” Circella said. “People will still not use this microtransit option (and) with very high parking availability, a lot of people will still find driving convenient.”

For now, a customer service survey included in the recent city report indicated that residents have few complaints. The biggest request among riders is for service to expand beyond West Sacramento into downtown Sacramento.

“There’s not as much ... to do in West Sac as there is in Sacramento,” said Angelo Miranda, 21, who uses Via every day to get to work while he prepares to take his driver’s test. “Sacramento has more stores, more social outings compared to West Sac.”

Rae Klock, 27, agrees. The Sacramento City College student’s car was impounded in May, and she has since been using the Via service.

“I really hope that it stays,” Klock said. “I would die if it didn’t.”

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