From San Francisco to Austin to New York, app-based services are allowing people to crowdsource bus routes, reserve rides — and take more charge of their commutes.
The Uber-for-buses variations are trending in major cities across the U.S., connecting riders to charter buses, linking neighborhoods to city centers and ferrying masses of people to major events.
"Crowdsourcing is the future of mass transportation," said Axel Hellman, a transportation planner for OurBus, a tech start-up that has three crowdsourced routes in the New York City area, including one recently launched from Livingston, N.J., to midtown Manhattan.
"If you are a community with a growing population, a lot of traffic, and in need some kind of mass transit service … you have to rely on your transit agency to get the funding for a new route," Hellman said. "But we are here to offer people the ability to create their own bus routes."
The platforms allow commuters to submit route suggestions, preferred drop-off points, and departures times. If a proposal receives enough votes — some companies require 50 — then a bus is chartered for the service.
Trips generally aren't confirmed until a good share of the seats are sold.
For daily commuters, the services generally aim to complement existing transit options — expanding capacity during morning and evening rush hours and in some cases providing service to transit deserts or underserved communities.
They also facilitate transportation to events that draw huge crowds, such as this year's Women's March on Washington, which drew hundreds of thousands of participants, many of whom crowdsourced bus rides through the New York-based Rally app.
As transit agencies in cities like Washington and New York face chronic breakdowns and service lapses, demand for these alternative travel options from frustrated riders is likely to grow, experts say. Rising rider dissatisfaction with traditional options is giving tech companies a good testing opportunity for innovative services, just as Americans' discontent with the taxi industry led to the rapid proliferation of Uber and Lyft.
"The danger is that people get to like those options more than public transit. That would be a disaster," said Jarrett Walker, a transit planning consultant based in Portland.
But more worrisome, he said, would be to have people flee transit to return to vehicles that would further clog roads.
If the services are adding capacity during rush hours and reducing the number of single-vehicle trip then experts say, they can be beneficial to cities trying to reduce congestion and struggling with their transit systems.
"Anything that efficiently gets people to travel in fewer vehicles instead of more vehicles is valuable for the functioning of the city," Walker said.
The scope of service these companies provide is generally limited to peak-hour commutes and special events, so they are not large-scale competition for public transit systems, which usually offer a wide network of bus and rail connections.
But the services aren't always successful. Like many app-based start-ups in the world of ride sharing, launches are frequent and shutdowns even more so.
In Washington, a similar micro-transit venture struggled to get off the ground. Bridj, which started in Boston and provided rides based on customer demand, closed abruptly two years after it launched in Washington.
"They can come and go and in a lot of markets they are still trying to figure out what works, and it doesn't work in every market," said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, which has 4,000 members including motor coach operators.
Chariot, a crowdsourced commuter shuttle service that started in San Francisco in 2014, has expanded to Austin, Seattle and New York in recent months.
Acquired by Ford last year, the service can take as many as 14 passengers from home to work. Unlike other companies that only provide the technology to connect passengers to existing charter bus companies, Chariot owns its vehicles. It operates more than 200 vans in the Bay Area.
This month the company launched two routes in New York, one from the Lower East Side to midtown Manhattan, and the other in Brooklyn.
As Chariot settles in New York, company officials say they are taking votes from commuters to build new routes. Chariot's tool allows people to pitch a new route and if the proposal gets 49 supporters within a month, Chariot will consider launching it.
"A better commute for you — and your neighbors — is in your hands," the company says.
The services say their prices are comparable to those of public transit, and in some cases include features such as free WiFi and USB charging ports. Ourbus's one-way trip from West Orange, N.J., on the new Livingston route is $7.75, while the New Jersey transit bus option can cost $8.55. The app Skedaddle facilitates the ride from Morristown, N.J., to New York's Penn Station via bus for $13; New Jersey Transit's train ride is $14. Chariot offers monthly passes ranging from $69 to $119, and it allows commuters to use their tax benefits for the service.
Tech companies have found an appealing market in the New York metropolitan area, which has faced mounting transit problems, including derailments, breakdowns and chronic delays on its subway.
OurBus's Livingston to Manhattan route launched just in time for Penn Station's shut down of three tracks as part of extensive repair work that is inconveniencing thousands of rail commuters this summer.
The company recently began testing trips to Washington from upper Manhattan and Paramus, N.J., providing service in underserved areas of the New York area where there is demand for bus service to the nation's capital. It added a route from Brooklyn to Washington for Labor Day weekend. The company is exploring commuter routes from the Northern Virginia suburbs, Hellman said, where it could take advantage of existing HOT lanes and a robust demand for commuter services. Commuter buses in the region carry 10,000 to 12,0000 people every day from Maryland and Virginia, according to the bus association.
Pantuso said the surge in crowdsourcing apps is expanding the bus business in some ways and adding competition in others.
Companies that provide commuter bus services are seeing new competition, and even reporting losses in ridership. But the crowdsourcing for special events, is creating or expanding the bus market and the travel opportunities for customers who might not have known or been aware there was any kind of service available or who didn't have a large enough group to charter a bus.
"The bus company might not have been offering that service so they are getting a new ridership out of it," Pantuso said.
In some markets, including the popular New York to D.C. route, transportation companies could feel the pinch if more competition is added.
"Are they going to be expanding the market or are they going to take from what's already there? I think that is the question," Pantuso said. "They will tell you they are going to expand it, but I don't know if they know the answer to that."