COVID-19 accelerated several trends, including increasing the number of people working from home and decreasing the number of people using downtown-centric transit. An increasing percentage of potential transit riders don’t have to commute to an urban center like downtown San Francisco or downtown Oakland. They need more flexible mobility options that support travel to a greater variety of locations in order to shop, socialize, and attend medical appointments.
Richmond, California, has begun offering innovative, on-demand transit service to many of the city’s residents that could serve as a model for other areas. The Richmond Moves shuttle, provided in conjunction with transit-technology startup Via, is one type of solution that could help public transit meet the needs of 21st-century transit riders.
Richmond is a city of 116,000 residents located on the Eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, north of the Bay Bridge. Per capita income in the city is below California’s statewide average, and the poverty rate is 13.9%, far higher than cities like San Francisco and San Jose, suggesting that many of Richmond’s residents could benefit from low-cost transportation alternatives.
To use Richmond Moves, riders use a smartphone app to arrange a pickup from one of the service’s three Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivans. The app tells the passenger where to go to meet the van, typically within a couple of blocks of his or her current location. Currently, the system’s service zone includes a 5.6 square mile area in which average household incomes are relatively low. Vans can also drop off and pick up at the city’s ferry terminal and at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in the neighboring city of El Cerrito.
The fare is a flat $2, with seniors and students riding for free. To attract riders, Richmond Moves is also offering 10 free rides to all passengers during its startup period.
The app, developed and maintained by Via, provides a similar user experience to apps offered by ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft. Users can enter their credit or debit card numbers as a source of payment or input a voucher code provided by the city.
Initial funding for the service came from a $1 million grant from the California Air Resources Board funded by the state’s cap-and-trade program. The grant covers two years of Richmond Moves’ operating costs.
To extend the service to a larger geographical area or beyond two years, Richmond will have to find additional grant funding from public and private sources, rely on farebox revenues, or tap into city general revenues. Other cities in the vicinity, such as Emeryville and Walnut Creek, offer fixed-route, free shuttle services that are municipally funded, but Richmond has serious financial challenges that would likely restrict its ability to fund a project like this.
Denée Evans, Richmond’s Transportation Services Project Manager who oversees Richmond Moves for the city, told me:
The City of Richmond has a robust set of regional multimodal options running through it, including BART, Amtrak, AC Transit fixed route buses, and ferry service to San Francisco. This microtransit service improves local first mile / last mile connections and fills in transit deserts which can greatly improve mobility for residents of Richmond. Through the Richmond MOVES program, the city transportation department can provide additional support to seniors, low-income and disadvantaged communities who need more affordable and accessible transportation options.
As a “first mile/last mile” option, Richmond Moves enables passengers to begin or complete their transit trips on other transportation modes that do not stop close enough to their origins or destinations. Evans does not see the service as a competitor of fixed-route bus services and noted that local bus operators, AC Transit and WestCAT, had not expressed any concerns about Richmond Moves.
Evans also sees opportunities to integrate Richmond Moves’ technology with the city’s paratransit services and to directly serve passengers who use wheelchairs. To that end, she plans to add a 12-seat wheelchair-accessible vehicle to the system’s fleet in the coming months. The new vehicle and additional services will be funded by a $250,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration.
Because Richmond Moves’ current service area already includes Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center, it is also an option for area residents seeking to access medical care or visit friends or relatives at the hospital.
Micro-mobility solutions, like the one being tested by Richmond Moves, are likely to offer a more cost-effective answer to contemporary transit needs and are the types of experiments that transit agencies should be trying more of.