Neighborhood electric vehicles to debut next month in Oceanside

Six-passenger cars to use ride-hailing app in six-week pilot program near beach


Oceanside will be the first city in North County next month to get its own fleet of “neighborhood electric vehicles,” similar to the ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft.

An experimental division of Ford Motor Co., FordX, is working with city and county officials to test drive the system in the Oceanside’s more densely populated neighborhoods near the beach as a way to reduce traffic, pollution and the need for parking.

FordX plans to use five Polaris GEMs, an all-electric car built in Anaheim, that would be available to people using an online app. Rides could be hailed from 3 to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday in the area west of Interstate 5 to the ocean and from the harbor south to Wisconsin Avenue.

“It’s an experiment,” said Amit Bakshi of FordX. “We’re really interested in the future of mobility.”

Each car will have a paid driver and up to five passengers. The vehicles will have a top speed of 25 mph and will travel only on streets with speed limits of 35 mph or less. FordX will pay for the program and employ the drivers, he said.

“We wanted a place that was dense enough that this could work,” Bakshi said, and Oceanside’s beach community seemed a likely spot.

Information about the system and its users collected by the FordX app will be shared with the city to help improve mobility and transportation programs, Bakshi said.

Details such as the exact start date and the final cost of a ride are yet to be worked out, Bakshi said. For now, a single ride is expected to cost $3, a mid-October start is intended, and the pilot program will last about six weeks. After that, FordX and the city will decide whether to continue the program.

“This is all for us to learn,” he said. “We want this to be low-key. We are not trying to get a ton of attention.”

The pilot program is supported by the San Diego Association of Governments or SANDAG, the area’s regional planning agency. Last year, SANDAG sponsored a state Senate bill co-authored by Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Beach) and Assemblyman Rock Chavez (R-Oceanside) that allowed cities to develop neighborhood electric vehicle programs.

“The Oceanside pilot will be the first ... in North County but not the first in our region,” said SANDAG public information officer Jessica Gonzales. “Circuit (formerly FRED) is the first NEV shuttle service in the region and operates in greater downtown San Diego.”

San Diego launched the Free Ride San Diego, or FRED, program in 2016 using the same type of vehicles that will be used in Oceanside. The service is funded primarily by state and local grants. It now has more than 20 vehicles and carried 194,600 riders in 2018.

“The pilot is an opportunity to reduce single occupant vehicle trips and reduce parking demand by providing a solution for trips around the beach community, harbor and business district as well as connections to and from the transit center,” Gonzales said.

SANDAG is promoting the expansion of neighborhood electric shuttle services as a “convenient, emission-free transportation option for community trips” and advising cities on how to implement them, she said.

The concept fits with the agency’s long-term vision of conserving energy and reducing greenhouse gasses.

Anaheim, where the GEM vehicles are made, launched its fleet of 10 all-electric neighborhood vehicles in January. The free service is called FRAN, for Free Rides Around the Neighborhood, and is available from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Ridership has doubled since the “micro-transit” service began, from 800 people the first week to 1,500 now, said Diana Kotler, executive director of the Anaheim Transportation Network, on Tuesday.

Anaheim uses the vehicles primarily within its Center City and Colony neighborhoods, she said. Many of the riders are residents traveling to employment, restaurants and shopping destinations, which reduces the need for parking in those areas.

“We are ecstatic, honestly,” Kotler said. “We think this is the future of transit. You have to provide people with flexibility, options and make it fun.”

The city obtained state funding to provide the service for the first year, and is investigating a number of ways to continue and expand it at no charge to riders. Among the financial options are assessing new businesses a fee in lieu of requiring them to provide parking and selling advertising on screens inside the vehicles.