BY STEPHANIE KANOWITZ
A new ridesharing program set up by the Washington, D.C., Department of Public Works (DPW) aims to reduce the number of cars on the congested roads of the nation’s capital and the amount of toxic emissions coming from those vehicles. But the resulting data also could give officials additional insights.
Under an agreement with Via Transportation, announced last month, D.C. government employees can book rides for official business through the Via app. To use it, agencies opt into Via Vehicles on Demand. The company receives a list of agency employees and sets up accounts under a corporate account. Employees download the app to their smartphones and log in with a unique promo code to book rides for work purposes such as meetings. At the end of each month, Via invoices DPW for all the rides taken, and the department passes on those bills to the agencies.
Like other popular services such as Uber and Lyft, after a rider books a ride, the Via app finds and sends the closest driver to a designated location within a block of the passenger. Via can be used for shared and individual rides.
So far, 10 agencies have the service up and running, and two more have requested enrollment. The Office of Strategic Planning and Performance Management (SPPM), DPW’s data team, has been leading the Vehicles on Demand effort.
“Together with Via team, SPPM collects and analyzes program data including ridership numbers, agency participation, cost, quality of service, trip length, etc.,” DPW Director Chris Geldart wrote in an email to GCN. “The live data insights are created in various dashboards and used by our team to increase agency participation, ridership and ensure high quality of service (e.g., short wait times, driver availability in rush hours).”
Via handles data privacy and security, Geldart added. Users are authenticated, authorized and audited, and all access is verified at the packet level and logged for audit, compliance and analysis.
“Via’s databases and backend systems are distributed among the three different ‘availability zones,’ which form Amazon Web Services’ US-East-1 region in Virginia,” Geldart said. “Via’s systems are designed to handle a complete failing of two out of the three zones.” Additionally, the company has a disaster recovery plan in that its databases are backed up to Amazon’s Simple Storage Service in an encrypted format.
Besides reducing traffic and carbon emissions, DPW is also seeing cost savings from the program. A major reason for this is the company already had a presence in D.C., so the partnership makes use of existing Via drivers, said Alex Lavoie, Via’s U.S. general manager.
Via Shared — think carpool — costs 56 cents per mile, Via Private is $1.06 per mile and a taxi is $2.16 per mile. The service is also cheaper than using agency-leased or -owned vehicles through a fleet share system, which works like Zipcar’s car-sharing business model, Geldart said.
“This program uses an already existing infrastructure to transport employees, thus minimizing the need for D.C. government vehicles, which means there is no maintenance, fuel or acquisition costs,” he added.
Other benefits DPW either sees or expects include fewer parking infractions and more transportation options for work-related activities.
“Our whole system is built with the idea that you can build the technology to efficiently group people together and route them if they’re headed to destinations in the same direction,” Lavoie said. “You can create an ecosystem that works for the riders of the vehicle, the drivers of the vehicle and also the city and residents of the city in which you’re operating by taking vehicles off the road, making sure rides are efficient and aren’t going to the most congested parts of the city.”
The partnership follows a pilot test of a ridesharing program that DPW and the D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles conducted with local taxicab companies from June 2017 to April 2018. In that time, more than 1,000 employees at 27 agencies took 2,100-plus rides. The impetus for that test run was finding cost-effective strategies for transporting District employees without adding to the 3,000 vehicles DPW maintains and fuels.
DPW’s partnership with Via is expected to result in about a 20% savings from the resulting per-mile rate of the pilot.