Palo Alto's new shuttle system, Palo Alto Link, launched its pilot program Tuesday, March 7, with a small fleet of Teslas moving through the city.
On weekdays between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., residents and visitors to the city can travel with ease within the city's limits through this new on-demand ride service. The shuttle replaces the pre-pandemic Palo Alto Shuttle program, which functioned like a bus route, with a fixed schedule and designated stops.
Now, riders can request transit through the Palo Alto Link app, which has an interface similar to that of Uber and other rideshare apps, or by calling a designated phone number. Each ride costs $3.50, with discounted $1 rides available for students, seniors, disabled and low-income users. The city will also offer weekly and monthly passes for frequent users at $20 and $65, respectively. The passes allow up to four rides a day.
For the first month of operation, until April 7, all rides through the program are free.
Nine cars are now circulating through Palo Alto, including, upon request, vans that are wheelchair-accessible and can accommodate bicycles. According to the city's Palo Alto Link website, pickup locations will usually be within a block of the requester's location; however, people with wheelchairs can be taken from door to door.
I tried out the service on launch day for the Palo Alto Weekly. Downloading the app and setting up a profile is straightforward — users need an email address and a credit card number, or they can give exact change to the driver. Then, it's easy to enter a destination and be matched with a driver. The app offers options for pickup at a few different times so that riders can choose to depart in either five or 15 minutes, for example.
I booked a couple of drives around Palo Alto to experience the shuttle service, hoping I might meet some other passengers along the way. Within minutes of requesting a ride, a sleek, clean car pulled up and I was on my way. Aside from the city logo on the side of the car, it felt no different than commuting via a different ride-hailing app.
The driver, polite and friendly, said he'd had a few other rides that morning along the city's main arteries. There had been some confusion about the shuttle's limits, he said: He had to turn down one rider who wanted to travel to Sunnyvale, which is outside Palo Alto Link's boundaries. (See Palo Alto Link's boundaries here.)
But the nine vehicles on the roads seemed more than adequate to meet demand on day one. After a couple of quiet rides around the city, I asked if I could remain seated in the backseat while the driver responded to other requests. He shrugged. He didn't mind in theory, but there was no one to pick up. In the middle of a Tuesday, few people besides curious reporters seemed to be driving demand for the new shuttle service.
Nathan Baird, the city's transportation manager, who oversees Palo Alto Link, said Palo Alto intends to share data about the ride program on a monthly basis. He said that on the shuttle service's first day, his office fielded calls about how the program works and how residents can start using it. For now, it's too early to say what locations and times of day are most popular among the app's users.
While the shuttle service catches on, I'm thinking that now might be the moment to enjoy an efficient, peaceful and free Tesla ride for my next errand. It's as luxurious as any Uber or Lyft — and quite a bit less expensive.
The Palo Alto Link program will continue on a pilot basis for the next 18 months.
For more information about Palo Alto Link, visit cityofpaloalto.org.
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