The VIA Metropolitan Transit on Tuesday approved a pilot program that would replace some fixed bus routes with on-demand vans. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

In one 17-square-mile suburban area of San Antonio, VIA buses will soon be replaced with Dodge Caravans.

The VIA Metropolitan Transit board of trustees on Tuesday approved the “Mobility On Demand” pilot program, which will replace fixed bus routes with vans that riders can summon as needed through a mobile app, similar to rideshare companies Lyft and Uber. Those vans will then take passengers to larger bus hubs with more frequent lines.

VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt said the public transit agency identified areas with low ridership when it planned the pilot program.

“Not surprisingly, those are all out past [Loop] 410 and sometimes past 1604,” he said.

VIA selected two zones where it will test the pilot program. The first is in Northeast San Antonio, near the Naco-Pass transit hub. VIA will start testing the program in April and, if all goes well, phase out fixed bus routes in the area in May.

VIA will test the pilot program in Northeast San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / VIA Metropolitan Transit

The cost of ordering a van will be the same as a bus ride, whether residents in the testing area travel from one point in the zone to another, or from within the zone to the Naco-Pass transit hub. The program will deploy up to seven vans, depending on demand, said Manjiri Akalkotkar, director of capital and service planning. VIA will contain the pilot program within the first zone before expanding, Akalkotkar told the board.

“We will monitor Zone 1 for how it works, because we may have to tweak the program,” she said. “Once it’s deemed successful, we’ll move on.”

If the program succeeds in efficiently transporting people from Point A to Point B, decreasing wait times from 60 minutes to 30 minutes, and increasing ridership, VIA will consider it successful, Akalkotkar said. The agency would then extend the pilot program to a second zone in Northwest San Antonio.

While the contract for the pilot program went to RideCo, a Canadian transportation software company that will build the app, the vehicles used will be owned and operated by Yellow Cab.

The program represents a fairly new solution to public transit challenges. In its research, VIA only found four other similar programs in Dallas, Arlington, Sacramento, and Orange County, California, said Doug Moore, VIA’s interim vice president of planning and development, adding that the program should also save VIA quite a bit of money.

“Last week I described this as a win-win situation, and I was corrected by a trustee that this is a win-win-win-win-win-win-win situation,” Moore joked.

He said he used seven “wins” because he anticipates seven positive outcomes from the program: lower total cost, lower cost per passenger, shorter wait time, shorter walking distance, shorter travel time, higher ridership, and assigning fixed route drivers to other VIA services.

Many of the trustees thanked Moore, Akalkotkar and Vice President of Procurement Dyanne Sampson for returning multiple times to explain the program to the board. Trustee Bob Comeaux said he appreciates that all of the program’s drivers would have full background checks and that unaccompanied minor passengers must be 12 years of age or older.

“I’m glad to know there will be no drivers that are displaced because of this,” Comeaux said. “There will be a one-month overlap, and drivers assigned to those routes will be assigned to other routes, with no reduction in staff or operator pool.”

As a result of the pilot program’s approval, VIA plans to phase out routes 640, 641, and 642 in May.

Providing bus service to suburban residential areas has been a long-standing issue in the transportation industry, Arndt said, because fixed bus routes do not efficiently serve single-entrance communities.

“As you move into areas that are more typical suburban developments with one entrance – that pattern of development is difficult to serve with a fixed route bus,” Arndt said.

Jackie Wang is a general assignment reporter at the Rivard Report.

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