Rural California ‘Uber’ like service starting with a Tesla

By Laura Bliss on CityLab

In tiny Cantua Creek, residents peer into the ride of the community’s future. Laura Bliss/CityLab
A farmworker’s hamlet in a sea of almond trees, Cantua Creek, California sits 22 miles from the nearest grocery store, 30 miles from the hospital, and 50 miles from the courthouse. When the county bus to Fresno makes its infrequent stops in town, what would be a one-hour car ride can take three. There is no Uber here, and no official local taxi company. For the many locals who don’t own vehicles, or know how to drive, these treks can be arduous, even impossible distances.

But they’re about to get a little easier. In the coming weeks, a brand-new seven-seat Tesla Model X will be ferrying residents of this 500-person Central Valley outpost to distant towns, at roughly the cost of a bus ride. For a one-year pilot period, the Tesla will be operated as a ride-hailing service for part of the week, and available for hourly, Zipcar-style rentals on weekends.* “Van y Vienan” (“They Come and Go”) will be among the first rural ride-share programs in the country operating with an electric car.  

“No one thought this would ever happen,” Julia Margarita Moreno said one night earlier this year in the parking lot of Cantua Elementary School. A longtime resident who speaks only Spanish, she declined to give her real last name (Moreno is a pseudonym). Thirty or so attendees of a community meeting, held to determine the logistics of the pilot, had spilled outside to inspect a demo Model X parked in the school lot. Gloria Estefan tunes blasted through the wide-open falcon doors of the $85,000 luxury SUV. “We’re very excited,” Moreno said.
Moreno would know. For nearly ten years, she has acted as one of a few informal “raiteras” in town, offering neighbors rides in her personal sedan to Fresno, Madera, and other locales for $5 to $10—or whatever they can pay. Before that, she too had been dependent on others for transportation. Like many in Cantua Creek, her husband took their one car to work in the fields during the day, leaving her stuck at home. When Moreno eventually managed to get access to a car, she became a one-stop ride coordinator and driver for mundane shopping trips and emergencies alike. Other raiteras have since joined.

“The need just kept growing and growing,” says Amanda Monaco, a policy advocate and lawyer with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “It got to the point where we kept hearing people say that they’d like more support for this—even simply for a larger vehicle.” 

Monaco’s organization provides legal guidance and organizing resources for towns like Cantua Creek in their quests for transportation and even more basic basics; many unincorporated communities in the ultra-poor, ultra-rural Central Valley lack streetlights, sewage, and reliable drinking water. Thanks to heavy truck traffic, agricultural burn-off, and nasty air inversions, the region’s air quality is some of the worst in the country. When the LCJA heard about the Just Transit Challenge, a grant-funding contest sponsored the 11th Hour Project intended “to bring equitable and climate-friendly transportation solutions to cities across America,” Monaco and her colleagues jumped at the opportunity. In March, Cantua Creek’s electric ride-sharing pitch was named one of the winners.

Cantua Creek residents gather around the Tesla Model X. (Laura Bliss/CityLab) 

LCJA is working with a Los Angeles-based electric vehicle ride-sharing platform called Green Commuter to insure, maintain, and operate the Tesla in a uniquely flexible way. Cantua Creek riders need not own smartphones to summon a ride; for a few hours every weekday, they’ll be able to dial into a dispatcher at the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission office, where pickup times and routes will be coordinated using Green Commuter software; individuals from the community will work as drivers, and the car will be available for individuals to rent on the weekends. Ride costs to passengers will also be subsidized by the grant. “It needs to be comparable to other public fares in the area,” says Leslie Graham, the director of grants and partnerships for Green Commuter.

Cantua Creek may soon be America’s only farm town with a community Tesla shuttle, but it’s not alone in pioneering shared mobility in remote corners of the U.S. Rural neighbors have long carpooled by horse, buggy, and automobile. Since 1995, the Independent Transportation Network of America has relied on a mix of volunteer and paid drivers to give rides to seniors and people with visual impairments; a specialized routing and coordinating software helps draw connections in both rural and urban settings.

In upstate New York’s Watertown, the Volunteer Transportation Center directs its 250 unpaid drivers across a three-county area to get those with limited transportation options to medical appointments and other necessities. There’s also Liberty, a 24-hour ride-hailing service in Nebraska’s western panhandle that leans on the civic bent of its independently contracted drivers, many of whom are teachers and veterans.

And just 34 miles southeast of Cantua Creek, the 7,000-person city of Huron will soon provide two electric vehicles to be dispatched and driven by its own longtime raiteras, thanks to a $519 million grant from the California Public Utility Commission and winnings from the Just Transit Challenge. As in Cantua, riders will need only a phone number to order a ride, and will pay a subsidized, per-mile fare for “Green Raitera” lifts. The funds will also help build charging stations along the roads to Fresno and convert an old diesel gas station into a fully fledged EV repair shop—a nexus for employment, hopes Mayor Rey Leon, who has been envisioning such an operation for years with his nonprofit Valley LEAP.

Plans for the EV repair shop in Huron, California. (Courtesy Rey Leon/Valley Leap/Green Raiteros)

As California invests in electric vehicles, high-speed rail, and transit-oriented planning to slash carbon emissions, rural communities haven’t always been part of the equation, says Monaco. Shared plug-ins in the heavily polluted Central Valley could be a way of including that region in the greener and more equitable future the state touts.
“We’ve got to work towards getting ordinary working families access to electric vehicles,” says Leon. “What the future is about is not a personal vehicle but a community fleet. This is a solution for the rural areas.”
What happens once the funding dries up? Some level of grant or direct subsidies may always need to be in the mix, says Susan Shaheen, an expert in shared mobility and the co-director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Research Center. Leon adds that he and colleagues at the Shared Use Mobility Center are “working [their] butts off” to figure out a long-term business model for Green Raiteras.

In Cantua Creek, part of the discussion at the community meeting earlier this year was whether riders should pay small monthly fees, in addition to fares, in order to ensure Van y Vienan has a future. Trips to Fresno will start at $10 for adults, and $5 for children and seniors; other locations will cost equal or less, depending on the distance. These prices might eventually decrease.

One local, Antonia Mendoza, thinks the success of Van y Vienan depends heavily on the pricing. “I feel better when I pay $10 for each ride,” he said. “That way we can keep it growing and growing.” Some worry that could risk suppressing ridership, which is another uncertainty in the program’s success. “I just hope our community does take advantage of it,” said Leticia Fernandez, one of Cantua Creek’s most vocal community advocates and supporters of the program.

In urban settings, competition between ride-sharing companies would surely bear in the success of one program or another. That is less the case in rural areas. Even in spread-out suburban areas, “the expansion of shared mobility services has long been considered a challenge,” says Shaheen. However, a recent data analysis by Uber suggests that as demand for ride-hailing grows, so does high-quality service in communities further and further outside city centers.

Although Uber restricts drivers from traveling certain distances to pick up riders, there is no explicit limit on the size of communities it can operate in. “Anyone who wants to supply rides can do so,” says Andrew Salzberg, head of transportation policy and research at Uber. “What’s the lowest density place we can serve? We haven’t gotten there yet.”

There may be no better illustration of the disruptive potential—and disparity-highlighting powers—of ride-hailing technologies than a program that ferries immigrant farmworkers around in an electric luxury SUV. But unlike most creations of new-mobility players like Uber and rival ride-hailers Lyft, country cousins Van y Vienan and Green Raiteros are powered in part by a sense of community. “What they’re doing in more rural locations is creating an exchange that’s not entirely built on capital,” says Shaheen. The more important subsidy here might be altruism—a value rarely associated with Silicon Valley’s unicorns.
In Cantua Creek, it is certainly one resource this community has in abundance. As the moon rose over the almond fields, the school lights turned the parking lot into an island of soft light. Then the Tesla whooshed off to L.A., with the Green Commuter staff aboard, while most of those who’d come caught rides home with one another in an assortment of old SUVs and pickups. Moreno and Fernandez lingered in the warm night, reflecting on the meeting. Although she’s not a raitera like Moreno, Fernandez likes to give neighbors rides, too; she has two cars of her own.

“I don’t personally need this thing,” she said, referring to the pilot program, as she jingled her car keys in hand. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t stop advocating for my community. If Hilda needs it, if Domitila needs it, if Gloria needs it, I’m going to make sure they get it.”

*This article has been updated to include additional information about Van y Vienan’s structure and pricing.

Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. Her work also appears in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, GOOD, the L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.