Shuttles find niche in Austin’s ride-hailing market 

Posted October 27th, 2017

On a recent morning at the Mueller Market District in North Austin, Lynda Williams’ sky blue shuttle rolled to a stop in front of the H-E-B store, parking among the crowd of shoppers strolling in and out. 

Williams sat inside and swiped at an iPad, looking at the possible routes she might take ride-hailers on that day. A neon vest covered her Navy button-up shirt, which had the Texas Capitol pictured next to the word “METRO,” the familiar Austin public transit brand. 

Plastered on the outside of the vehicle was a newer and lesser-known logo: “Pickup.”

“We constantly pick up people,” said Williams, 53. “We’re trained operators. People know they are going to get to their location in a very safe and timely manner.”

It’s been about five months since Capital Metro launched Pickup, a ride-hailing program the city is testing.

As ride-hailing has become a billion-dollar industry, various options for rides have emerged, including shuttle systems such as Pickup, or Ford’s Chariot, entities that have carved a niche into the market and experienced growth that stakeholders say is driven by traffic-plagued cities such as Austin. 

With Pickup, hailing a ride works similarly to that of established ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft.

Riders can use CapMetro’s Pickup phone application, or dial a phone number found on CapMetro’s website, to request a ride. 

Once a request is made, drivers transport riders one request at a time to their destinations. 

Because Pickup is a pilot program scheduled to end in May, service areas, for now, are limited to the Mueller and Windsor Park neighborhoods, places CapMetro says were picked because they represented some mixed demographics that would provide the pilot a useful picture of its potential future use. Hours of operation are also only during certain times - from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

There are generally five Pickup vehicles on the streets during operation hours, said Chad Ballentine, vice president of demand response and innovative mobility at CapMetro. All are different from the average ride-hailing vehicle because they look like minibuses and can handle wheelchair-bound riders. They can also seat about eight people.

"A lot of transit agencies are dealing with, 'What are we going to do about Uber and other (ride-hailing companies)?" Ballentine said. "Obviously, our big transit is our big buses, but... Pickup is ready to fill the gaps not only to connect to our other services, but it allows people to get to work and other services. You're not bound by where the (big buses) go all the time because that's a fixed route."

Capital MetroA Capital Metro "Pickup" shuttle.

CapMetro, Ballentine said, imagines a future where a full-time Pickup program can be the first-mile, last-mile option for customers that ride the city’s big buses or rail lines, as well as a service mainly found in less dense areas of the city. CapMetro spends $50 per hour on the program, with the service averaging 29 hours per day, according to Ballentine.

In just a matter of months, demand has increased for Pickup, which, for now, runs free of charge. Drivers have seen the pilot grow from a handful of riders per day to as many as 90-plus riders, Ballentine said. CapMetro recently expanded the service hours and added a route to the service areas.

Pickup’s service was preceded by other ride-hailing shuttle services like Chariot, which launched in San Francisco in 2014 before expanding to Austin last year after being sold to the Ford Motor Company. It has since also expanded to Seattle and New York. 

The company works differently than Pickup. Riders can look on the Chariot phone app to see where Chariot vehicles are located near them and reserve seats on the 14-person shuttle. The shuttles operate along fixed routes, picking up and dropping people off at various spots along a route. Unlike Pickup, most of Chariot’s shuttles are not wheelchair accessible. 

What makes the app different than a city bus, Chariot marketing manager Brittany Lewis said, is that the company picks daily routes based on crowdsourcing. The service costs about $3.50 per ride, though Chariot offers a monthly rate here that costs $99, and Chariot said waiting for a shuttle can take less time than a city bus. 

“We serve specific areas,” Lewis said. "Not everyone is served by public transit, especially in places like Austin, where (public transit) is not as expansive.”

Chariot would not share any company statistics on its use but said that it mainly operates in South Austin along South Lamar and Riverside. 

It also sees much business through private events and partnerships with local companies such as Home Away, Lewis said.

Since Chariot began operating, both Uber and Lyft have also begun offering fixed route options. 

Lewis said Chariot’s goal is to have fewer single-occupancy vehicles on the road, helping ease congestion and pollution. 

ChariotA Chariot shuttle.

The services are still only beginning to see how they fit into the ride-hailing market. And they still have challenges to work through.

Chariot recently shut down in San Fransisco for multiple days after some of its shuttles failed safety inspections by the California Highway Patrol, but the company has reportedly solved the issue, and Lewis said the incident never affected the Austin market. 

On the morning Pickup driver Lynda Williams drove through Mueller Market, she couldn’t find a passenger that had hailed a ride, with her tablet saying she was at the wrong location, even though she wasn’t.

There have also been times older riders -- some of them in wheelchairs -- have had difficulty navigating the app. CapMetro said wheelchair riders comprise about 20 percent of the Pickup program’s rides. And there are also worries that the shuttle’s bulkiness, when compared to other ride-hailing options, could disinterest some customers, though Ballentine said Pickup has had a mixed demographic of riders, and that CapMetro is trying to make the shuttles more attractive by adding the logos and looking to improve the overall design while potentially being able to experiment with other vehicles if the program lives past its pilot.

"I don't think this will ever replace fixed routes in dense areas, but it can in some areas," Ballentine said. "People are expecting faster response times now. All of Austin expects us to be a city and transit system that leads the nation in innovative stuff." 

There is promise that Pickup will outlast its pilot, and that ride-hailing shuttle services can continue to have a place in the market.

CapMetro and Chariot both said the number of riders has steadily risen since launching, and both apps have expanded service since beginning operations. Williams said she constantly has people to pick up. 

Shortly after beginning her work day that morning, her first ride request popped up on her iPad. A woman named Betty was waiting for her near a Church’s Chicken restaurant on Cameron Road. 

Williams tapped the iPad, quickly examined the route to her destination and shifted the vehicle into drive.

She had a few minutes to get there.