Bellevue is planning a “CommutePool” network of autonomous rideshare services. The goal is to launch the service in 2019, connecting riders from southeast King County to major employers in Bellevue and Kirkland.
Last week, Bellevue and Kirkland jointly submitted a $3 million grant application to the US Department of Transportation’s ATCMTD program (Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment). That program funds model deployments of new technologies for transportation safety and efficiency. A decision on the grant is expected by October. The project also anticipates matching funds from both cities and contributions from major Bellevue employers in the Commute Trip Reduction program. Employers already pay for employee use of vans, so this can be an important source of matching funds. The projected cost of launching the program is about $9 million.
Riders will access the system via a smartphone app which Amazon will develop. The app can select pick-up and drop-off locations, find available parking at park-and-rides or leased parking areas, and reserve seats at specific times. Luum, a Seattle firm actively managing commute options at many Eastside firms, will coordinate the program at participating businesses.
Bellevue would like to operate the service with autonomous vehicles, but could lease non-automated electric vehicles as needed to start service by mid-2019. An RFP to obtain vehicles is likely soon after the grant is approved. Waymo plans to purchase 82,000 autonomous vehicles for deployment beginning 2019, and General Motors have also said they will deploy autonomous vehicles commercially next year.
In Bellevue, the CommutePool vans will serve major buildings and designated curb pick-up and drop-off locations.
The proposal has buy-in from many of the largest Bellevue and Kirkland employers. Employers with some 33,000 employees on the Eastside have signed letters of commitment to support the program.
The target audience, commuters from cities such as Renton, Kent and Auburn, face long commutes and some of the worst traffic in the region on SR 167 and I-405 south of Bellevue. This market was selected as the initial focus for CommutePool because of its congestion and high SOV share. Development is dispersed so transit service is less available and less convenient in most neighborhoods. CommutePool ridership goals are for 1,000 daily riders within six months of launch; 2,000 after year two; and 3,000 by year three.
Several participating firms already operate their own shuttle services on fixed schedules from leased parking lots. Others subsidize rideshare on Uber and Lyft. This creates both a natural market for the CommutePool service and a funding pool for expansion.
The aggressive schedule places Bellevue in the forefront of cities planning for autonomous vehicles. That incurs some obvious risks that the technology will not be ready, or that the public may not regard commuting in autonomous vehicles as sufficiently safe. Poll data suggests declining confidence in the vehicles, but that may recover as they become increasingly visible. Bellevue expects to use safety drivers in the beginning.
What are the prospects for success? The performance of many micro-transit start-ups has been underwhelming, dogged by proportionately high labor expenses because the vehicles are smaller. Ridership has been low in several cities even by the standards of suburban coverage services. But there are reasons to be optimistic Bellevue may do better. This region also boasts the nation’s largest vanshare program at King County Metro. The economics of local vanshare programs are healthy with high fare recovery rates. For riders, CommutePool could provide many of the advantages of vanshare, but with greater flexibility to travel at different times or to use the service only on some days.
Existing shuttle buses at many Bellevue employers could be combined to capture economies of scale with a collaborative program. That adds some complexity in coordinating services with demand at multiple locations, but the cost efficiencies will make CommutePool appealing for employers.
For fixed-route transit providers, there is little downside. Bellevue’s service seems to compete mostly with SOV trips and other private shuttle services, and does not draw funding away from fixed services in other areas. Nevertheless, it’s critical that CommutePool be able to overcome the higher driver costs of smaller vehicles by operating with autonomous vehicles as soon as possible.