Private business launched Emery Go-Round as a public service

By David Hubbard

The goal of every commuter is simply to go the distance —from home to the workplace and back. It is that last mile from the bus stop to the final destination that challenges so many city planners.

As more cities work to reduce travel in privately owned vehicles, the local business community in Emeryville, CA, 10 miles east of San Francisco, has stepped up with its own solution to the last-mile puzzle. Business owners have pooled their resources to provide free shuttle service on what they call the Emery Go-Round.

Pixar Animation Studios, Leap Frog, Jamba Juice, Peet’s Coffee and myriad biotech companies base their operations in Emeryville. This community grew from a small industrial town of paint factories, scrap metal yards and tanneries before it began to decline – that is until the 1980s when John Flores came on as the new city manager.

The glass is half-full
Charged with redeveloping Emeryville, Flores viewed the 40 percent of vacant land as an opportunity to attract new business.  In anticipation of the traffic that comes with new growth, his early plan was to consolidate several private shuttles already in operation. Half of the funding would come from local and federal government, and half from the participating businesses. By 1995 the service had grown and evolved into what is now the Emery Go-Round.

The plan worked
The Emery Go-Round began with 300 riders per day. Within six months that number had increased to 3,000 per day. In 2012 the Emery Go-Round had recorded 1.5 million boardings. Still, even with its success, business leaders had to convince a number of naysayers of this service’s value in getting commuters out of their cars. Meanwhile, the Emery Go-Round operation is continuing to grow at a pace consistent with the growth of the Emeryville community and surrounding areas.

As of March 2013, three public and private entities joined as partners in the management and operation of the Emery Go-Round. The Emeryville Transportation Management Association (TMA) and its board contracted with Gray-Bowen Consulting, Walnut Creek, CA, to oversee the Emery Go-Round service.  Gray-Bowen in turn subcontracted with MV Transportation, Dallas, TX, for the physical operation of the service.

MV Transportation runs 19 vehicles on the Emery Go-Round, including 40-passenger IC Bus cutaways, ElDorado Easy Riders and Thomas buses. It employs 23 drivers to provide shuttle service seven days a week. Emeryville expanded weekend service to shopping areas to make the Emery Go-Round a benefit for more than just regular commuters.

Success means improvement districts
City officials credit the Emery Go-Round as the essential component for the influx of major corporations. On weekday mornings, the Emery Go-Round buses fill with rush-hour rail commuters from San Francisco and literally drop them off at the doorsteps of their workplaces. The growing ridership is most thankful.

With the Emery Go-Round so robust, local business owners moved to form an improvement district for their community by taxing themselves for the funding to operate the shuttle service.

The City of Emeryville sees its shuttle service as an especially effective template for smaller municipalities with limited parking and downtown districts in a state of decline.

With success comes concern
Emeryville officials say further growth is critical to prevent the typical downward spiral that many transit operators experience as demand for services increases. When costs go up, cutbacks begin, all which leads to declines in ridership.

The City of Emeryville has initiated discussions as to whether the city may have to eventually supplement current funding to keep its shuttle service in operation.

Meanwhile, Emery Go-Round commuters are wishing for similar services for their return trips to their home communities in the San Francisco Bay area.

The City of Mountain View, home to Google and Intuit, says it is looking to Emeryville for inspiration. They’ve recently announced a similar service.