Large corporations in Seattle like Microsoft utilize a fleet of private shuttle busses that get workers to and from work everyday.
Now, one startup wants to offer that service to the masses.
SnapTransit is a new company hoping to help people ditch their cars and be more productive on their commutes with small WiFi-equipped buses that pickup and drop-off from specific locations around Seattle, a city experiencing a growing traffic problem.
“We like to think of taking our shuttle as allowing yourself to recapture that commute time,” said CEO Jeff Pattison. “When you’re on your way to work or coming back home, it allows you to use that time productively.”
The startup has yet to nail down exact pricing and route information. But it plans to launch on Jan. 11 with one bus that travels to and from neighborhoods like Ballard, Fremont, South Lake Union, and Downtown.
Users can reserve a seat and pay for fares via SnapTransit’s website — an app is coming soon, Pattison noted. During beta tests earlier this month, SnapTransit charged $4 for one-way tickets, but it plans on offering a monthly subscription option for regular riders.
“We think SnapTransit is where Uber meets the bus, so to speak, and at a price point between the two,” said co-founder Todd Jones.
The company employs one driver and said it runs background checks, drug screening, and other tests on the people driving their busses around town. Each shuttle carries a $1.5 million comprehensive commercial insurance policy, in addition to a general liability policy — this is required by the state. The busses are also ADA compliant and fully-inspected by a third party.
Pattison, whose background is in commercial real estate, said his company has been in contact with the City of Seattle “since Day 1” to make sure it is compliant with any requirements.
Jones added that city officials have been “very supportive” of his company given that the founders are Seattle natives and want to help improve transportation problems.
“They appreciate that we’ve worked with them from the beginning,” said Jones, whose background is in accounting and finance. “We’re not just coming in and starting to operate, or trying to take over Metro bus routes. We’re trying to be a true partner, as opposed to competition.”
Rick Sheridan, communications director for the Seattle Department of Transportation, said that his office has provided guidance to SnapTransit on driver training and safety, but noted that the company does not require a permit from the City.
“The City is interested in how this service performs and how well it supports customers,” he added. “Given the needs of a growing Seattle, it could be a supplementary connection to downtown and South Lake Union.”
The idea of a private shuttle that’s a bit more expensive than a public bus — but perhaps more convenient and comfortable — isn’t a novel business idea. There are other companies like Loup or RideChariot doing something similar around the country, and services like Jitney that have been around for decades. Then there’s Uber, which is testing a carpooling service called uberHOP in Seattle.
The long-term viability and customer demand for those newer models is unknown. Leap, which raised venture capital and made headlines for its high-tech private busses in San Francisco that offered organic food and sleek interior design, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Pattison said that SnapTransit isn’t trying to create a niche market for itself or a luxury bus like Leap; it would rather appeal to a larger crowd.
“We’re hoping to be available for anybody that is interested in using their time more efficiently,” he noted. “It doesn’t need to be just tech developers making $200,000 a year.”
Pattison and Jones are first-time entrepreneurs, lacking experience both in regard to startups and the transportation industry as a whole. But the founders, who are bootstrapping their company, are confident that SnapTransit can succeed.
“With the year or so we’ve had with the City, figuring out what they need, we learned a lot,” Jones said. “There is demand for this in Seattle.”
There does seem to be potential for something like SnapTransit in Seattle. When GeekWire spoke with economic experts about Uber’s carpooling service uberHOP earlier this month, they agreed that it could be successful if there is enough consumer demand — even if each bus isn’t filled to capacity.
“Typically, the way something like this works is that the car would not have to be full for Uber to be making money,” said Gareth Green, who chairs the economics department at Seattle University. “This is common with a lot situations like hotels, airplanes, taxi cabs.”
We’ve reached out to the city’s transportation officials for comment on SnapTransit and will update this story when we hear back.