South Bay experiments with on demand public transit

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ByJonathan Bloom KGO logo
Friday, January 15, 2016
South Bay experiments with on demand public transit
There's a new app that could have a big impact on suburban transit and eliminate the need for a car.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- What do you get when you cross public transit with a service like Uber or Lyft? You can get VTA Flex. ABC7 News looks at how this new app could have a big impact on suburban transit.

Amid the fresh stucco and the palm trees, there's something about one new development that local planners don't like -- cars.

Sure, there's a light rail station nearby, if three quarters of a mile counts as nearby.

"What can I say in Silicon Valley? There's an app for everything; now there's an app for this," Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews said.

Around north San Jose, you might have noticed squares popping up on the pavement and little buses pulling up to them. The VTA calls the Flex bus no less than a revolution in public transit.

"Can government become as innovative as the community we serve? Well, VTA is stepping up to that challenge," San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said.

Just like Uber and Lyft, the Flex bus begins with an app. It tells you what the fare is, such as $2, and you set a start location and request a ride.

The app gives you walking directions to one of 100 small bus stops in the three-mile-wide pilot area. By the time you get there, the bus might be a minute or two away.

"So this brings the convenience of Uber and the efficacy and sustainability of transit it together," Ridecell CEO A.J. Trivedi said.

Transit planners think the new flex buses could be perfect for the more suburban parts of Silicon Valley, where dense new pockets of housing are springing up, but things are still a little farther apart.

"When we live in an area like North San Jose where there's a lot of sprawl, running a large bus often means running an empty bus," Trivedi said.

Historically, that's meant running buses as infrequently as once an hour. But with small buses on demand, that can change. The driver doesn't go anywhere until you request a ride.

"We will then schedule the bus in real time to come and get you and pick you up and take you where you want to go," VTA chief technology officer Gary Miskell said.

With a tablet in the driver's seat, the route is always changing, adding little detours with each new passenger who wants to be picked up. The magic is all in the software and its makers have a bold prediction: "We believe that transit all across the United States will function like this in a couple of years," Trivedi said.