Mercedes-Benz and Via on-demand transit are bringing the future of mobility to the suburbs of Southern California.
It’s shortly after 6 pm in Ladera Ranch, a community in Orange County southeast of Los Angeles. Jaime Anti and Craig Pyatt are ready to call it a day and get a sundowner at their favorite local bar. She takes out her smartphone and with a few taps summons a ride from Via South OC, the latest mobility venture by Daimler Business Innovation and on-demand transit startup Via. They lock up and make their way to the sidewalk. Three minutes later, a gray Mercedes-Benz Metris van pulls up outside their apartment building and ferries the couple to their watering hole. Once they arrive at Costello’s, Anti and Pyatt get out of the van while the app settles their fare. “It’s so convenient and reliable. There’s no good reason we would consider using our car for getting around,” says Anti as she heads into the bar.
Previous mobility models neglect suburban areas
Anti and Pyatt are power users in an ambitious experiment to shape the future of mobility in suburban America. “We are exploring uncharted territory,” admits Rasheq Zarif, the senior manager of business innovation for Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America (MBRDNA). “There’s a lot of focus and activity around mobility services in cities, and Daimler has done a lot in that space. There are many megacities in the world, but the suburbs are the next challenge for moving people around in a more intelligent and sustainable way.” The United States, he points out, doesn’t just consist of dense metro areas such as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but also of large stretches of suburban and rural communities. “Current business concepts for future mobility don’t focus on where the majority of Americans live,” says Zarif.
We are exploring uncharted territory.
That’s why Daimler has partnered with New York-based startup Via to test the waters in the ultimate suburban setting of southern Orange County. It’s a cluster of master-planned communities featuring large single-family homes with multiple-car garages and neatly trimmed lawns, framed by shopping centers and freeways stretching to San Diego and Los Angeles.
Launched in December 2015, Via South OC offers an innovative on-demand ridesharing service for about 8,500 households in an area of roughly ten square miles. “Ladera Ranch was a right fit as the region was flexible to test different ideas, and a great area that exemplifies our target demographics,” says Zarif.
Picked up within five minutes
A small fleet of Metris vans with professionally trained and carefully vetted drivers operates under a regular transportation charter permit. From 8 am to 10 pm Monday through Friday they promise early adopters a wait time of no longer than five minutes to get them to and from any given point inside the coverage area, all for a flat fee of $5. Instead of fixed routes and schedules, Via offers spontaneous mobility that’s much more affordable than driving yourself or hailing a taxi or on-demand service.
So far, the feedback from residents — predominantly young families in their 20s and 30s — has been overwhelmingly positive. “People here love their cars and think of them as the ultimate convenience. Our main challenge consists in informing residents about this new mobility option. Once you’ve tried Via you realize you can do better things than sit in traffic in your own car,” says Zarif. “Ultimately, it’s about changing habits in the suburbs, whether you commute or just run errands. That doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years.”
The optimal route and number of passengers for every van
While Mercedes-Benz provides the Metris vans for a consistent premium experience and has the deep operational experience of running a global mobility service such as car2go, Via brings backend smarts to the table. Since launching in 2013, the startup has honed algorithms for the world’s first dynamic on-demand transit system in New York and Chicago. Its software calculates the optimal routing and load factor for each van without asking passengers to sacrifice convenience. The app will for instance tell a passenger to wait at a particular corner of an intersection to save the van from making unnecessary turns and shorten travel times for everyone on board.
“We know how to do this for tens of thousands of riders a day, so bringing this concept to the suburbs is the logical next step,” says Zachary Wasserman, Via’s vice president of strategy. “Density might be lower, but we can still fit more people into a vehicle each hour than any other technology.” He compares the mind shift to the advent of elevators in cities of the early 20th century. “People needed to get used to the idea that urban space suddenly stretched hundreds of feet into the air and how to move around in it. If we can accomplish a similar behavioral change in the suburbs, it can mean fewer roads and parking lots and more space for public spaces, parks and sidewalks.”
Less streets or parking spaces – more room for parks and pedestrians
Even though it’s still a small pilot, demand has grown so much that Via South OC decided to double its coverage area and expand from afternoon hours to a full-day schedule after just two months in operation. The service now stretches from the campus of Saddleback community college with 26,000 students in the North down to the popular dining and entertainment destination of San Juan Capistrano in the South, covering a Metrolink station for commuters to LA as well as various shopping malls and office parks in between. The average ride is around five to ten minutes long. Via has a good relationship with the community, real estate developers, and local businesses to test out the concept and determine how to grow it further.
“We intentionally started small to work out the kinks and will keep adding more geographies and hours,” explains Matthew Hall, MBRDNA’s project manager. “The data points and the personal feedback we’re getting tell us we’re onto something. You can live in a low-density suburb and still order a shared ride with a smartphone. The lessons learned here in Ladera Ranch can be applied to other regions as the idea of shared mobility takes hold.”
One of the reasons California is the ideal testbed has to do with the state’s emphasis on sustainable transportation options, as Zarif points out. The California Air Resources Board sets emissions limits not just for vehicles and industry, but also for new residential developments. And that may be a crucial lever to bring about behavioral changes in a culture hooked on private vehicles.
All indicators suggest that we’re onto something.
“It takes many years to get people in an existing community to give up their cars now and then, but we’re talking to developers who want to make on-demand ridesharing an integral part of new residential projects,” says the business innovation manager. “When you move into a new home and a service like Via is already there, you’re more likely to make it part of your daily life.”
The team behind the Ladera Ranch pilot predicts that in the next ten years there will be a tightly woven network that combines various mobility services — from carsharing in urban cores all the way to dynamic ridesharing powered by autonomous vehicles on the periphery. “The future of suburban mobility,” says Zarif, “will arrive when you can tie all these services together in one seamless ecosystem.”