Mountain View's employee shuttle system is back on track after more than a year of halted service during COVID-19, responding to a growing number of tech workers who are ready and willing to head back to the office instead of working from home.
The MVgo shuttles, which ferry workers between transit hubs and major employers like Google and Microsoft, resumed service on July 12 with new routes and a lean schedule. The buses are available for public use, but are primarily for last-mile commute trips connected to Caltrain and other transit options.
It's not quite a return to normal, at least not yet. Only about half the number of shuttles are in use, and the ones that are in service aren't exactly filled to the brim. The shuttle system relaunched before it made sense from a ridership perspective, said Tom Harrington, board chair of the Mountain View Transportation Management Association (MTMA), but it's still an important transit link that gets people out of cars.
While shuttles were out of commission, employees could still get subsidized transportation to and from work using Uber and Lyft, with the MTMA reimbursing trips within 10 miles of the city.
The plan was to resume shuttle service even earlier in the month, but it was tough finding the drivers with a commercial driver's license, which has been a problem for transit agencies throughout the country during the COVID-19 recovery. It took an extra week to find qualified drivers to run the shuttle system even at half capacity.
Employees in Mountain View have been trickling back into the office in limited numbers in recent months, and the feedback so far is that people are happy to be working in person again, Harrington said.
"Most of us employers are still trying to maintain some form of physical distancing, but having folks who are 6 feet away and carrying conversations with each other is a big help," he said.
As it stands, most large employers are planning to have employees back in the office by September, with a few exceptions like Apple who have pushed their start date to October. The big question is how so-called hybrid schedules are going to affect traffic patterns and transit demand, and whether days in the middle of the week will have more demand than Monday and Friday.
In order to ease the concerns of taking public transit during a pandemic, Harrington said the shuttles are requiring all riders to wear masks and practice social distancing, and that the vehicles are frequently cleaned and sanitized. Shuttle drivers are also getting daily temperature checks for symptoms.
But what could ultimately compel workers to take Caltrain and the shuttle link to Mountain View's job centers is worsening traffic and the return of commute congestion, which has worsened since the state's public health restrictions were lifted on June 15.
"When we start seeing traffic on the roads ... people are going to realize they could've spent that hour and a half being productive on their phone or laptop," Harrington said. "I think we're going to see a swing in the pendulum, and we're going to see folks switch back to transit."
Because the shuttle system functions as a last-mile connection to work, the city's transportation management agency is dependent on regional transit agencies like Caltrain, BART and VTA service returning as well. The plan is for Caltrain to ramp up service by the end of August and BART is expected to add more trains as well, but VTA may take longer due to the recent tragedy, Harrington said. But he's confident that VTA will "come back with a vengeance" later this year.
Information on the MVgo shuttle routes can be found online at MVgo.org. Though service schedules may change in September, the route is likely set in stone for the remainder of the year. The resumed service this month includes additional stops in the San Antonio area, with times that align to Caltrain's reduced schedule.
Health and safety ratings for Bay Area transit agencies can also be found [dashboard.healthytransitplan.org online.