How a Tiny California Town Launched a Successful Carshare Program, plus other examples in progress

By Tim Frisbie at the Shared Use Mobility Center, 2 Aug 2017

When the Joad family stopped in Needles, CA in The Grapes of Wrath, the town was the “Gateway to California,” a small but popular way station along Route 66.

Over the last 50 years, however, Needles has been in a state of slow decline. Today, more than a quarter of its 4,000 residents live below the poverty line. And, unlike the Joads, many of them don’t have a car.

Adding to the town’s transportation challenges is that it’s perched on the edge of both Arizona and Nevada. The nearest grocery stores, medical offices and other amenities are just over the border in cities like Loughlin, NV or Bullhead, AZ—not far, but not reachable via public transit since they’re across state lines.

The result is that car-less residents, including senior citizens and affordable housing tenants, are fairly isolated.

“Needles has some fast food chains and a liquor store. They had a 99 cent store and Dollar General, but they both closed,” said Aaron Moore, Consolidated Transportation Services Agency Director at the Victor Valley Transit Authority (VVTA), the transit agency that serves the area. “Just about everything is across the border.”

As Moore wrestled with ways to address transportation access in Needles, he wondered – what if there was some way that the agency could help people transport themselves across state lines? VVTA was already working with Enterprise Rent-A-Car on a vanpooling program, so Moore reached out to see what it would take to launch a small carshare program.

Launching Needles CarShare

To convince Enterprise to operate on such a small scale, VVTA offered to guarantee a monthly minimum payment to cover the program’s costs regardless of usage. The company agreed, and Needles CarShare officially launched on August 8, 2016.

The program features two cars, a Nissan Altima and a Dodge Caravan, which are parked outside the local credit union. Members pay just $5 an hour to use a car, including insurance and fuel. Thanks to the VVTA subsidy, there is no membership cost or sign-up fee.

To help provide access to residents who don’t have credit cards, VVTA also worked with a local financial company to create payroll debit cards that people can use to sign up for the program.

One year in, Needles Car Share is a success story. According to Moore, the program has about 50 members and higher than average utilization. The minivan is especially popular.

“A lot of times we’ll have families chip in and split the cost four ways, so four families can all go grocery shopping at the same time using the van,” said Moore.

Additionally, the revenue generated has covered about 70 percent of the program’s cost, leaving VVTA to pick up only 30 percent of the guarantee, much less than anticipated.

At two cars, Needles CarShare is not large by any standards. But it has definitely had a big impact on residents who use the program to access fresh food, medical care and more.

You can find more information on new mobility solutions for rural areas in SUMC’s recent posts about the Green Raiteros pilot projectand Liberty Mobility Now. Keep up to date on the latest industry news by signing up for our weekly newsletter.

Image credit: James Brooks

Liberty Mobility Now

Liberty Mobility Now (Liberty) is a rural and small urban Mobility as a Service (MaaS) provider. We are on a mission to connect communities through technology, public-private partnerships, and deploying Liberty Drivers where there is need. We provide advanced smart phone technology designed to work in rural areas for individuals to request trips as well a call center for those who want to visit with a person to set up an account or book a trip.  With Liberty individuals can access multiple transportation options with one tap, click, or call.

How did Liberty get started?

In the summer of 2015, Liberty Mobility Now (Liberty) was funded through a US DOT Federal Transit Administration Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grant.  The Phase 1 project provided the funding to do a feasibility study and beta technology development to determine – will this work and is there need.  The results were dramatic with both intense support and demand in communities nationwide. With the fuel from the SBIR grant, Liberty founders applied for the NMotion Tech Accelerator in Lincoln, Nebraska.  They were accepted as one of the top 6 teams, out of over 160 applicants, and away we went learning how to focus on product development and turn Liberty from a concept into a commercial scaleable solution. Starting in the summer of 2016, Liberty deployed our Liberty Connect software with transit providers in the panhandle of Nebraska.

See the video below from one of our first customers, Ms. Jonnie Kusek of Panhandle Trails, a rural intercity transit provider in western Nebraska .

In 2017 Liberty is launching their MaaS and Liberty Drivers in seven states and anticipates being nationwide by 2020.  Rural mobility challenges span the globe and Liberty is looking at international deployment in that time frame as well.  Liberty is committed to working with public transportation providers whenever possible to enhance utilization and awareness of the service. See the video below from Ms. Carol Prince, of Scotts Bluff County Public Transit to learn what benefits she sees working with Liberty.

 Who’s leading Liberty?

A multidisciplinary team of individuals passionate about making a difference and improving the quality of life in rural America have come together to make Liberty possible not only as a company but also as a transportation solution for millions of Americans.  Bios for the core leadership team are given below.

Valerie Lefler, President & Chief Executive Officer

Ms. Lefler graduated with honors from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration after studying International Economics abroad at the University of Oxford. She received her master’s degree with honors in Public Administration with an emphasis in Public Management from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2012.  Valerie’s passion for rural communities began from a young age growing up on her family dairy farm in southeast Nebraska. Ms. Lefler has over 15 years of project management experience, involving over $37 million in nationally recognized research, education, and technology transfer initiatives. She has worked extensively with program sponsors at the state and federal levels, including, but not limited to, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. DOT Federal Highway Administration, the Transportation Research Board, the Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR), and the Nebraska Department of Education. The past 3 years Valerie has worked with rural transit providers and non-profits in Nebraska and across the United States focusing on mobility management, compliance with FTA regulations, and technology enhancement.   Though this experience is where Liberty’s design originated.

Shashank Gajjala, Chief Technical Officer

Mr. Gajjala has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and over five years of experience in software development and architecture. His most recent experiences include serving as a website architect for the University of Nebraska at Omaha working on a contract for the Nebraska Department of Roads, developing a web-based asset management system for rural transit systems. Prior to working for the Nebraska Department of Roads, Shashank served as a storage solutions architect for UPS in Alpharetta, GA. Mr. Gajjala also served as a storage administrator at Capital One in McLean, Virginia prior to working at UPS. His responsibilities included storage provisioning, LUN migrations, LUN deletions, troubleshooting, and zoning.

Mac Rodgers, Business Development Director

Mr. Rodgers is a consultant focused on assisting companies with strategy and execution using the skills he developed over three decades of managing and leading companies.  Mac has a degree in business administration from Doane University.  He worked at Metromail Corp. (now Experian Marketing Services) from 1984 to 2002.  During that time Metromail experienced a 500% increase in revenues and Mac went from being a shift supervisor to President of two divisions with combined annual revenues in excess of $175MM.  In 2002 he purchased a SaaS start-up which he later sold in 2004. He has additional start-up experience working as the COO for Vente Inc. where he revamped the company’s business strategy increasing annualized revenues by 35% over a 15 month period after which he successfully completed a sale of the company at the request of the founders.  Just prior to starting his consulting practice in 2015 he was President and CEO of World Marketing, Inc., a division of Berkshire Hathaway Media Group, for nine years.

Ken King, Safety & Security Manager

In addition to working with Liberty Mobility Now, Mr. King is the Director of the Western Area Research Test and Evaluation Center (WARTEC) for Naval Facilities Engineering Command.  He served 21 years as a US Marine, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer 4, and performed combat missions in Desert Storm and Iraq. As part of the combat operations cell Ken was responsible for identifying and responding to varying types of incidents and taking appropriate actions to safeguard personnel as well as get medical treatment administered.  While serving as Officer in Charge of the Quick Reaction Force, Ken organized safe vehicular movement to incidents, assessed the situation, and evacuated personnel.

Vaughn Carter, Talent Acquisition Coordinator

Vaughn’s commitment to creative but sound business practices dates back more than 40 years. Vaughn spent more than 10 years as an executive recruiter – headhunter – recruiting top management and technical talent for high tech companies in the Silicon Valley of California. In 1996 Vaughn founded CMS: Career Management Services, a career counseling and corporate outplacement firm. He consulted to organizations in the areas of recruiting and retaining top talent, stakeholder engagement, and executive coaching. In 2002, the world’s largest corporate outplacement firm, Right Management Consultants, purchased CMS and Vaughn ran Right’s local operations. Vaughn acquired real world management, leadership and organizational skills through owning several businesses, serving as Mayor of a Colorado community, president of a Chamber of Commerce, state president of an industry association and as a member of the boards of three nonprofit organizations. Vaughn has served on numerous boards, commissions, committees and task forces appointed by Governors, County Commissioners and Mayors in two different states, and has been a key note speaker as well as a guest lecturer at a number of Colleges and Universities.

Interview with Valerie Lefler, Liberty

Liberty, a new ridehailing startup based in Lincoln, Nebraska, has been called the “Uber” for rural America. The company, which launched out of a U.S. DOT Small Business Innovation Research program, is focused on helping to improve mobility in areas with low population density by increasing access to transportation and connecting various types of public transit. As Liberty prepares to debut this coming November, its team has also brokered an extensive array of partnerships with public and private organizations such as planning agencies, medical centers and services that care for people with special needs.  Liberty President & CEO Valerie Lefler discussed her organization’s latest developments and the implications of “grassroots” ridehailing services at the 2016 National Shared Mobility Summit.  The following is a lightly edited version of the Shared-Use Mobility Center’s conversation with Ms. Lefler.

Where did the idea for Liberty come from?

Liberty CTO Shashank Gajjala and I used to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha providing technical support to the Nebraska Department of Roads. We noticed that there was a lot of demand for transportation services that wasn’t being met.

For instance, only 14 percent of rural households have access to public transit. One of every three veterans over 65 who lives in a rural community faces major challenges getting transportation to the VA for medical care. In some rural counties, one of every two children lives in poverty. There are people dying alone or getting institutionalized because they don’t have a car.

We thought, what can we do to help fix this? We sat down and started banging out ideas based on what was going on in the market. Eventually we came up with the idea for Liberty.

How does the service work?

People can request rides in a variety of ways. We have a call center for people who don’t have access to a smart phone. We also offer enterprise solutions, so that organizations like nursing homes can hail rides and pay part of the cost for residents.

We think that type of service might also be of interest to employers, such as a manufacturers that have workers who don’t have drivers licenses. The company could be losing $20,000 or $30,000 a day because they can’t get people there to fill a shift, so we think they would be happy to help pay for those rides.

What is your plan for launch?

We plan to cover about 60 square miles for the first 30 days, then expand 60 miles every 30 days after that. We don’t need to have the same density of drivers as an urban market, because we don’t have the same population density. Our goal is to have a maximum wait time of 30 minutes. But you can also schedule rides in advance, such as for folks who have medical appointments. So it doesn’t always have to be on demand.

We think our drivers will also be quite a bit different [than other ridehailing services]. They are going to be predominantly female and range in age from 40 to 65. Right now they are the type of person who may give their relative or fellow parishioner a ride to the doctor. But they can’t do it for everyone, so that’s where Liberty comes in.

How will Liberty work with public transit and other partners?

We plan to refer clients to transit, and have them refer rides to us. The key is providing more choices. Basically we’re saying, if you want a $2 ride and to socialize, then use transit. If you want to take your kid to the doctor at six o’clock at night and the bus is not running, you can hail a Liberty ride.

In a lot of rural communities, transit is demand response. It’s a vital service, but the downside is you might have to leave your house by 8 a.m. to get to Walmart and get groceries by noon and get home by 3 p.m. Some small systems may only have one bus, so their service is limited.

We’ve also talked with the state DOT and local providers about partnering directly on some rides. For instance, if someone needs to get the hospital for a critical medical appointment, an agency could purchase service from us for the cost of trip. We see ourselves as a hybrid between a TNC (Transportation Network Company), an open class carrier, and a transportation broker.

What have your biggest challenges been in getting this concept off the ground?

The biggest challenge has actually been the demand. The sheer number of folks who have reached out, it’s overwhelming. We’re doing our best to launch as quickly as possible, but also need to make sure we are launching as robust a platform as possible, before we scale.

We’re also working through issues such as how to ensure our app works in remote areas with low cell reception. We realize that our users may have one bar, or no bar at all, in some areas. To address that, we are trying to build our app with a low data exchange rate, so the user’s phone won’t have to be in constant communication with the server during use.

What are you looking forward to at the National Shared Mobility Summit?

I’d really like to learn about some of the latest marketing and public engagement strategies that other companies are using. It would also be great to find some more national partners who are interested in this rural space, as well as to just catch some the internationally-sought-after speakers to learn, get motivated and get the tone for the industry is going.

The “Indigenous Uber” Program Serving California Farmworkers

By  July 11, 2017 

With so much innovation in urban mobility in recent years, it’s easy to forget sometimes that sharing a ride doesn’t need to require an app, a credit card or a membership. Sometimes, it doesn’t even require money.

For years, the central California town of Huron has been served by a grassroots system of raiteros—retired farmworkers who provide rides to get people to hospitals, courts and other critical appointments. Most use their own vehicles and work for little more than gas money and lunch, if their passengers can afford it.

These drivers provide an informal support system that helps residents reach vital services, most of which are located more than 50 miles away in the city of Fresno. Otherwise, the trip is only possible via a bus that runs once a day and takes upwards of three hours.

According to Huron mayor Rey Leon, the length of that bus ride is a powerful physical and psychological barrier for his community, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the state.

“There might as well be a wall between Huron and the world’s opportunities,” he said.

Several years ago, as funding began to become available in California for initiatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Leon began thinking about ways he could use it to bolster the raitero network, which he views as an “indigenous Uber” service.

Fast forward to January 2017, when the California Public Utilities Commission approved $519,000 in funding to launch Green Raiteros. The pilot program will provide a shared fleet of zero-emission electric vehicles that drivers can access on demand and help develop a centralized dispatch system to support the raiteros network. The program, which is set to debut this fall, will also offer some additional financial support for volunteer drivers.

The Shared-Use Mobility Center is proud to be providing technical assistance to support the design and launch of the Green Raitero program. In the months ahead, SUMC will be working with Mayor Leon and other stakeholders—including the San Joaquin Valley Latino Environmental Advancement Project (Valley LEAP) and the Fresno County Rural Transit Authority—to help develop a business plan and advise on ways to best manage the shared fleet incorporating industry best practices.

More information about the Green Raiteros program is available in this recent feature in the New York Times. To keep up to date about SUMC’s work on Green Raiteros and other projects, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

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