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San Diego is planning to subsidize the cost of downtown’s on-demand FRED shuttle for another year while simultaneously working alongside the region’s transportation agency to secure a substitute service for the long haul.

Thursday, the City Council’s four-person Environment Committee unanimously signed off on a one-year, $1.2 million contract extension with electric shuttle operator Circuit. The amended deal, if approved by the full council, means locals and visitors in the city’s core can continue to e-hail or flag down the familiar open-air cars at no charge, without interruption, through April 2023 or until a replacement is found.

“What FRED has shown our city is that we can be innovative in the way we address the future of public transportation, and FRED’s services go beyond first and last mile connections. As a flexible fleet, FRED provides more opportunities for people to use transit in a holistic way and their model is something we should expand and emulate through the city,” said Councilmember Raul Campillo. “Quite frankly, this is something that not enough people know about and I’m really happy to see us continue this partnership.”

FRED, short for Free Ride Everywhere Downtown, is the San Diego-branded version of Circuit Transit, which was started as The Free Ride by co-founders James Mirras and Alex Esposito in 2011. Local service dates to 2014. In 2016, the city’s former downtown planning agency, Civic San Diego, stepped in to fuel operations, covering the cost for riders with revenue from downtown parking meters and public garages. San Diego took over the contract when Civic was stripped of its city-related duties.

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Per the terms of the original five-year arrangement, Circuit runs the service — maintaining the ride-hail app, handling day-to-day operations, and conducting marketing and advertising efforts — and San Diego subsidizes most of its cost. The Florida-based company also sells advertising revenue to help fund operations. In 2019, San Diego contributed $1.2 million in downtown parking revenue to the program, and Circuit contributed $330,000 in advertising revenue.

San Diego’s fleet currently consists of 20 electric vehicles that seat up to six people and cruise downtown streets from Little Italy to East Village. Through February 1, the shuttles have traveled over 1.25 million miles and picked up more than 1.1 million passengers, according to a staff report prepared for City Council members.

In 2019, ridership peaked at 23,000 passengers per month, or 275,000 in total for the year. Service levels were severely impacted by the pandemic in subsequent years. Annual ridership rebounded a bit from 136,000 riders in 2020 to 182,000 riders in 2021.

All told, the all-electric fleet has reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the region, saving the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions from 196 personal vehicles in a year, the staff report states.

Over the years, FRED has fielded criticism for a high volume of missed rides and its cost to operate. Circuit attempted to tackle booth problems with a pooling feature, rolled out in 2019, that increased the average number of riders per trip. However, the ride-grouping feature was suspended for the bulk of the pandemic and was only recently turned back on. In January 2022, the cost per rider was $5.55, down from $6.50 per rider in 2021, said Ben Verdugo, who is the city’s program manager. The cost per rider was $4 prior to the pandemic.

The soon-to-be-extended contract, which is proposed to run through April 2023, could mark the beginning of the end — or start a new chapter — for FRED in downtown San Diego.

The city is looking to lock in a long-term downtown shuttle operator later this year. It will piggyback off an ongoing solicitation process conducted by the San Diego Association of Governments, which is seeking to create a bench of fleet operators who could be deployed for a variety of services around the region. Details are still being determined, but San Diego plans to select an operator from the pre-vetted group to run its downtown shuttle service, as well as to introduce circulators elsewhere in town, starting with Pacific Beach, Verdugo told the committee members.

Circuit is participating in SANDAG’s competitive bidding process, a spokesperson for the company said. The electric shuttle operator owns the fleet of San Diego vehicles and would retain ownership should FRED to come an end.

“We do not have any specific plans to change the circulator services downtown; however, we continue to evaluate the circulator services within parking districts to ensure that the service is equitable, accessible and an appropriate reinvestment in the community to provide for added sustainable mobility options to our residents and visitors,” said Alyssa Muto, who is the director of the city’s Sustainability and Mobility Department.

FRED operates downtown Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Passengers can request a ride through the Circuit smartphone app or flag down an available shuttle on the street.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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