Silicon Valley Reinvents the Bus

From ride-sharing services to autonomous vehicles to the Hyperloop, technology is transforming personal transportation and making it cheaper, faster, and safer. Now Silicon Valley is looking to sprinkle its magic pixie dust on an old concept—buses.

Using bus-style routing as opposed to actual buses, several established players and tech startups have introduced various means to make shared transportation more appealing. Last year, Lyft debuted its Shuttle service in San Francisco and Chicago, offering fixed routes and fares during rush hour.

Uber tested a similar service in Seattle called Uber Hop, pairing multiple riders traveling a similar route during rush hour. Last week, Uber unveiled a new Express Pool service, which groups together people headed in the same general direction, but at designated pick-up spots, similar to a bus stop.

With Uber Express Pool, passengers may have to wait a few minutes for Uber to calculate a carpooling route and find well-matched riders, then walk few blocks to catch their ride. But Uber says the service cuts passenger fares by 50 percent compared to an UberX and is cheaper than a point-to-point Uber Pool.

Reducing Rider Cost and Urban Traffic

While Express Pool simply applies a bus-like routing to its existing business and regular vehicles, other startups are enticing riders to climb onboard actual buses.

The most obvious example is Chariot, a van-pooling service purchased by Ford in 2016, which now operates in six US cities and recently launched in London. Chariot uses 15-seat Ford Transit vans and an app to crowd-source popular routes to reduce riders' transportation cost and urban traffic; enterprise customers get onboard Wi-Fi.

Recently, Citymapper relaunched a bus-style service in London. The company began life as a public transit app that collects valuable data on rider patterns. Last year it started a Smartbus service that leveraged that data to fill holes in London's public transit and operated a popular late-night route in East London.

Citymapper's bus service uses a dedicated app with tracking and scheduling features, while its large and small buses are outfitted with USB ports and plug-and-play displays for riders to use. The company pipes in pop music and creates "busmojis" on onboard displays to alert riders when approaching stops.

Like Uber, Citymapper has run into red tape across the pond. In London, any vehicle that carries nine or more passengers is considered a bus, and buses must stop at fixed locations. Vehicles with eight or fewer passengers are private hire vehicles and they can pick up anyone they want.

Given that Citymapper moves its pickup locations due to demand, having fixed pickup locations defeats the purposes of its service. So for now, it's sticking to fleets of eight-seat Mercedes Viano vans so it can qualify as private hire vehicles. It's "a bit like a bus because it has stops [and] a bit like a cab because you book it and it has guaranteed seats," Citymapper president Omid Ashtari says.

There's no doubt that the stodgy bus industry needs a tech overhaul. As a board member for the SXSW Accelerator, I've reviewed pitches by several bus-based startups that fill a need, such as bus-pooling for concerts and sporting events. And it makes sense to move lots of people together in one large bus rather than in separate smaller vehicles, as shown in this comparison.

Most people in the US are used to having their own vehicle and independence. And other than maybe a bachelor/bachelorette or vacation party bus, have you ever had a pleasant experience riding on a bus? Me neither. So I wonder whether Silicon Valley will have trouble attracting riders.

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