The Holy Grail of urban mobility is a service that pairs the point-to-point convenience of a car with the low cost of public transportation. It's an elusive quest, to say the least, for the simple reason that it's very expensive to pay a single person enough to drive around a handful of others. But a New York service called Via is making a go at this ultimate aim, and the early signs are encouraging.
Via co-founder Daniel Ramot tells CityLab the company is currently doing tens of thousands of rides a week in a limited service area of midtown and uptown Manhattan. It also just closed a round of venture capital funding with $27 million to expand into new markets. The key to Via's success so far, says Ramot, is capturing that "middle ground" between taxi and transit.
"We feel there's a demand for a solution that's right between the bus and the taxi, as far as price—probably closer to the bus than to the taxi," he says. "And that people are very interested in a solution that they have to pay a little more than for public transit but it increases their convenience dramatically."
Via currently runs between 32nd and 110th streets from 6:45 a.m. to 9 p.m. As with other ride-hailing services, travelers book and pay through a smartphone app, with the Via fleet consisting of premium SUVs and Sprinter vans. But the cost is just $5 a trip (if prepaid) because Via incorporates trip elements typically reserved for public transportation: travelers go to the nearest corner to catch their ride, and they're subject to sharing the journey with other travelers along their route.
What separates Via from an increasingly crowded ride-hailing field is its dynamic-routing system that adjusts to new trip requests in real-time. Via's system takes a number of factors into consideration before deciding whether it's reasonable to add a new passenger: space in the vehicle, of course, as well as origin and destination, required route deviation, and additional wait time. Live route updates are all made through a back-end system that requires no distraction for the driver.
Skeptical readers might immediately call to mind the Super Shuttle—a mode that seems great in theory but can feel like a big pain in practice, especially if you're the one who gets on first and is dropped off last. Ramot says the Via system is careful to take into account "what the route feels like" for passengers, and that it adapts to new data. Among other things, Via has learned that people are more willing to make a small detour at the start of a trip than at the end.
"It's more like a continuous boarding and disembarking of people," says Ramot. "You get on, there's already somebody. You may pick up another one or two people. Then you might get off. People are constantly getting in and out, so it's hard to define who's 'first.' "
Another fear with micro-transit start-ups, from the perspective of city mobility, is that they'll create new congestion or compete with existing public transportation. But Via's shared approach should reduce traffic compared with solo taxi trips, and its chosen service area fills a clear hole in the New York City transit grid with regard to crosstown service. Since there are limited places to cross Central Park, such a trip on mass transit can often require three fares: one to reach the crosstown bus, one to ride it, and one to reach a final destination. Via turns such a trip into a single seat.
The company seems to recognize its potential role in the larger transit system. Ramot says that in addition to expanding its basic service to other areas, the company is also looking to partner with transit agencies in smaller cities, where a dynamic-route vanpool option might prove both complementary and cost-effective. After all, if transit-rich New York can benefit from a more flexible supplement to fixed-route, it stands to reason most U.S. cities could do the same.
"The future of public transit is a dynamic solution that responds to customer needs, to customer demands," says Ramot. "It could come to you instead of having you come to it."