San Antonio – VIA buses don’t pass through the 17 square-mile zone on the city’s Northeast Side anymore, but that doesn’t mean the area doesn’t have VIA service.
The transit agency launched the “VIA Link” pilot program in May 2019. Instead of waiting on scheduled bus service, VIA riders can summon a shared van by a phone call or an app to travel between numerous “virtual stops” around the pilot program zone that surrounds Nacogdoches Road inside Loop 1604.
The program is part of VIA Metropolitan Transit’s plans for the future, and a service that Senior VP of Public Engagement Jon Gary Herrera calls a “game changer” for the industry.
“This is a service that provides us the ability to reach areas that we weren’t efficiently reaching. And in fact, in some cases we weren’t reaching at all,” Herrera said.
There were 107,910 passengers between the launch on May 4, 2019 and Feb. 27, according to statistics provided by VIA.
“We’ve attracted new riders to the service, and we’ve kept the riders that we had on the old service,” Herrera said.
Waiting for his VIA Link ride at the H.E.B. on O’Connor Road and Nacogdoches, Paul Wilkerson said he frequently uses the service.
“I use it to travel, to grocery shop, to do different things,” Wilkerson said. "It’s very beneficial for the people. I think it’s a great thing. "
Grocery stores are common destinations, Herrera said, as are restaurants and doctors’ and dentists’ offices.
Though it’s a VIA service, it’s not VIA drivers behind the wheel. A Canadian company, RideCo, provides the app support and data, while Yellow Cab dispatches the drivers in VIA Link-branded vehicles.
The model is more effective than bus service, Herrera said, both in wait times and cost. Instead of $1.8 million a year for bus service, the VIA Link costs are expected to be about $1.2 million.
While KSAT heard complaints of long wait times from some riders, Herrera said they have been averaging wait times of 10 to 15 minutes from a rider ordering a van to it actually arriving.
“Now they are on average experiencing about a 10-minute pickup versus a 60-minute service that we had with the bus,” Herrera said.
VIA ridership statistics show the 640, 641, and 642 bus lines were last operated in August 2019.
Along with increasing bus frequency and creating an “advanced rapid transit” system, expanding “smart transit,” like VIA Link, is one of the things VIA says it will do if it receives the roughly $36 million in revenue from a 1/8 cent sales tax that Mayor Ron Nirenberg and other supporters of a sweeping transportation plan want to send VIA’s way.
The funding switch, letting the tax’s current use funding Linear Creek Parkways and an aquifer protection program expire and authorizing it for VIA instead, would ultimately need voter approval. If that happens, about $30 million of those funds would be invested in “innovative systems” like VIA Link over 10 years, Herrera said.
The agency has already budgeted to expand the program to an area on the Northwest Side, Herrera said, as well as creating a similar service for the Sandy Oaks area. The “Express on Demand” service would take riders from Sandy Oaks, where there is currently no bus service, to the VIA Brooks Transit Center.
Beyond that, Herrera said VIA wants to expand the on-demand idea to nine or 10 more zones in a similar fashion to its pilot program.
“I mean, it seems to be that right recipe of the time it takes, the distance of a virtual stop, and the directness of the route,” he said.
However, he said expanding the program that much would require new funding.