A partnership between VIA Metropolitan Transit and Toyota to expand the transit agency’s rideshare program to the South Side has significantly increased residents’ access to schools and jobs, officials said Friday.
VIA expanded Link — its on-demand rideshare service, which is similar to Uber or Lyft, but for the price of a bus ticket — to the South Side in August 2022 thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Toyota USA Foundation.
At the time, Link only existed in two zones on the North Side of San Antonio. The mission of the South Side expansion was to remove mobility barriers, officials said, and on Friday, VIA and Toyota celebrated the service’s success thus far.
In just seven months, VIA Link South has completed 33,793 rides — more than 1,000 of them to the Toyota plant. VIA officials said the South zone is already being used at a faster rate compared to the two Northside zones, which have been around longer.
Stephanie Garcia, a spokeswoman for Toyota, said the foundation awarded the grant after the auto manufacturer partnered with the Community Transportation Association of America to complete a mobility assessment of the area.
“We quickly learned through that initiative that there was a critical need for affordable and reliable transportation. One of the ways to address that was to provide this grant,” said Garcia.
Here’s how Link works: passengers book a ride through VIA’s mobile app then head to one of 180 designated pickup spots within the zone. Just like with commercial rideshare apps, once a driver has confirmed pickup, the passenger can see their location as the driver approaches the stop. Once in the van, the driver takes them directly to their destination.
LINK is comprised of 35 VIA passenger vans, approximately 11 to 12 per zone, with 947 stops in the three zones. The service runs seven days a week from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Up to three people can take a single Link ride, and are usually picked up within 10 to 20 minutes of booking, according to VIA.
Link South connects a 12.5-mile area that includes the Madla Transit Center, Palo Alto College, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, South San High School, South Park Mall, Toyota and H-E-B.
During fiscal year 2022, VIA Link Northeast provided 82,399 rides, while Link Northwest completed 37,399 rides, according to Lorraine Pulido, communications manager for VIA.
VIA CEO Jeffrey Arndt said the Link service may be more successful in South San Antonio due to the number of educational institutions and companies in what is a mostly rural area.
Link South has been a huge boon for Eladio Diaz, a maintenance technician for one of Toyota’s on-site suppliers. Before the service began, Diaz’s wife would have to drop him off and pick him up every day in their shared 2020 Toyota Corolla.
VIA’s bus line only went as far as TAMU-SA, so there was no way for him to get to work from there to the Toyota plant, where he works for Forma, which delivers Tundra truck beds to Toyota.
Now, he uses Link every day. Forma pays for his monthly VIA pass, but he also gets free rides through U-Pass, which pays for students’ public transportation, including VIA Link and the bus. Diaz is a student at St. Philip’s College.
Between work and school, Diaz almost always has a varied schedule. Some days, he pauses his workday, goes to class for a few hours, then returns to work until about 9 p.m.
Diaz estimated that he and his wife are saving about $15,000 a year by not having a second car, and he no longer worries about his wife having to spend so much time ferrying him to work.
“Now with the VIA Link service, I don’t have to worry about [her], she can take care of whatever she has to do,” Diaz said.
“It’s pretty much like an Uber ride, except for the fraction of the cost,” he continued. “An Uber ride, the same distance from my house, would cost about $25. Versus $1.30? It’s a big difference.”
Arndt said the Link service also saves passengers time. Taking a bus within the city can be slow, given all the stops a bus makes, he said, whereas using Link is more direct.
VIA Link also connects to the regular bus service, allowing passengers to transfer to a bus at no additional charge.
“We see VIA Link as the appropriate form of mobility improvement in areas that are low density, have relatively small street networks, not a lot of streets,” Arndt said. “That’s primarily as you can imagine, that’s primarily as you move out from the center city.”
In the city, Arndt said VIA will continue to focus on its bus service, improving its frequency, speed and reliability.
VIA Link’s biggest zone is in the Northwest, offering 423 virtual stops, while its Northeast zone offers 344 stops. The South zone has 180 stops now, but more are coming, VIA said, thanks to the transit agency’s Keep SA Moving plan, which voters overwhelmingly approved in November 2020.