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New last-mile transit experiment launches in Carlsbad

Carlsbad Connector
Commuter Troy Ardon showed his reservation to shuttle driver Rebecca Verdugo on the first day of service. The new “Carlsbad Connector” shuttle service officially started service on Monday, August 19, at the Poinsettia train station in Carlsbad. The app based system takes people from the train station to their final destination in Carlsbad for just $2.50, or free if they have a transit pass.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

App-based shuttle service is designed to get more commuters riding Coaster trains

A new era in public transit started Monday morning with the arrival of four passenger vans at Carlsbad Poinsettia Station.

Wrapped in a blue, white and teal color scheme with the words “Carlsbad Connector” in their windows, the tiny fleet on display near the station’s Coaster commuter rail platform is billed as the first instance of a local transportation agency embracing the modern world of smartphone-based on-demand ridership pioneered by private companies such as Uber and Lyft.

On Monday, those with monthly Coaster passes who disembarked at Poinsettia could use a special app on their Apple or Android phones to arrange for pickup at the station and delivery to local businesses in Carlsbad’s sprawling business parks along Palomar Airport Road. Those without monthly or all-day passes can also ride, though they have to pay $2.50 each way.

It’s this kind of connectivity, noted Carlsbad city councilwoman Cori Schumacher, envisioned by the “Five Big Moves” initiative championed by the San Diego Association of Governments. The plan aims to drastically increase the efficiency and speed of public transportation by investing heavily in the kinds of “smart” infrastructure made possible by smartphone technology.

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“This Carlsbad Connector project is a perfect example of how the Five Big Moves will enhance connectivity, increase safety, contribute to our shared sustainability goals and improve the quality of life for people living and working in communities across our region,” Schumacher said.

A $650,000 pilot project pulled together by the City of Carlsbad, the North County Transit District and SANDAG, the connector will operate through June 4, 2020, allowing all three entities to study whether and how such a system is or isn’t able to get more commuters out of their cars and onto shared rides. For now, the four shuttles will operate only within a narrowly-drawn sector designed to better connect Poinsettia Station with the employers whose employees most commonly use the Coaster. A map of the service area, and additional details, are available at carlsbadconnector.com.

This isn’t the same kind of door-to-door service that commercial ride services now offer. Connnector vans will drop off at “virtual” stops which, as of yet, are not listed on the service’s web site. An organizer said the locations are still being “refined” but the idea is that they would be no more than a five-minute walk from a passenger’s ultimate destination.

Unlike the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services, the connector does not run 24/7 but rather is timed to fit the most common commuter schedules, picking up from Poinsettia from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and dropping off from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. There is also a lunch-time service that runs from noon to 3 p.m. Lunch-time service, confirmed Christie Marcella, Carlsbad’s economic development manager, allows riders to schedule pickup at their business, visit a local restaurant, then a return to work, hopping on another van at the end of the work day and reaching the station in time to catch a Coaster train home.

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Because seating in the 12-person vans is limited, the program asks riders to reserve a seat or seats at least one hour ahead of time though there can be more flexibility with lunch-time accommodations. The initiative hopes to have at least 100 boardings per week day which would translate to 50 round trips to and from the station.

Though everyone present at Monday’s kick-off event had nothing but superlatives for the new service, it has not been universally acclaimed. Vista city councilman John Franklin, also a member of the NCTD board of directors, has said several times in public that he voted against the initiative due to its cost. It would have been cheaper, he argued at a city council meeting last week, to simply purchase Uber rides for Coaster riders in order to meet the goal of getting 100 daily boardings.

Looking up the cost of an Uber ride to the ViaSat Inc. campus at 5:10 p.m. from Poinsettia Station, Franklin said, he found that the cost would have been $10.70 per trip. One hundred such trips across 260 working days in a year, he calculated, would cost about $278,000, a far lower number than the pilot project’s $650,000 total cost. Using Uber’s “pool” service, which allows multiple unrelated riders to share a ride, would drop the cost, he said, to about $8.24 per trip or about $215,000 per year for 100 trips per day.

“We could have achieved the goal of eliminating single-occupancy trips and (have) achieved a much better cost outcome there,” Franklin said during the meeting.

Marcella, the Carlsbad economic development manager, did not dispute Franklin’s back-of-the-envelope math when asked about his public statements after Monday’s launch event. But she did say that the Carlsbad Connect program aims for a certain visibility in the community that its supporters home will convince commuters to get out of their cars and onto the Coaster. Doing so, she noted, would be congruent with the city’s climate action goals which call for fewer gas-burning vehicles on local roads.

“If someone was in a shared Uber or Lyft, you woudn’t necessarily know that they were commuting differently, and so you would not be encouraged at all to change your behavior,” Marcella said. “We feel like this pilot program has benefits that something like subsidizing Uber or Lyft rides wouldn’t provide.”

Franklin said in an email Monday afternoon that he remains skeptical of the value that the added visibility that special vans can create.

“I don’t think we would have had to spend a penny if we worked through the HR departments at the largest businesses in Carlsbad,” Franklin said. “A little bit of leg work could have saved the taxpayers a lot of money.”

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To be clear, the city and the transit district have been working with local businesses to encourage their employees to try the new service, helping them offer special coupons to their employees for free rides and also free trial transit passes so that they can try before they buy.

All of that debate felt a bit academic Monday morning for Kirk Leopoldo, a recruiter for Wal-Mart Labs which has an office about one mile from Poinsettia Station. Leopoldo said he started riding the Coaster to Carlsbad from his home in San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood when he started working in North County and often takes an Uber to work from the station. The connection service, he said, is likely to change his behavior.

“I’ll probably ride more often if this service is available,” Leopoldo said.

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that the pilot program ran through December of 2020. Though that is the date listed on the project’s “scope of work” documentation, an official with the project clarified Tuesday that the project will run through June 4.


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