Better door to door shuttles


Just back from the nightmare of holiday travel, which started at 5:30am on Christmas morning and a security line snaking all the way to baggage claim. Coming back 6 days later, I braved the door to door shuttles from the airport.

I generally regret the decision to use these shuttles, which seem to average about 1 hour 30 minutes for the 35 minute drive to my home from SFO. This time, they had 10 people waiting for my town (which would normally be a dream as you would not spend all that time wanding around closer towns dropping off earlier folks) but in fact after we saw others had waited an hour for any shuttle to show up, we went to the caltrain, which takes an hour for the trip but is predictable.

The curse of these shuttles is how unpredictable they are. For some they are a quick trip but often they will drive you many times around the airport waiting for passengers, and then on an unpredictable drive. The public hates unpredictability even more than slowness, and would pay for predictability, I think.

So can computers, and some common sense, fix this? Surely you could make reservations which tie your flight number into the database so the shuttle company sees your plane arrive and knows pretty accurately when you will make the curb. (You can confirm that with a cell phone speed dial if your cell number is registered.) If lots of people did this, you could know how quickly a large enough group of people who live close together would be ready to leave.In theory there would be little incentive not to pre-register and just show up, which is what happens now. Though some would forget to inform the company if they did not make their planned flight.

However, sometimes the system would then reveal that you're the only person going to an area at a given time, and thus in for a very long wait. This might encourage you to not use the shuttle, which they won't want. This could be fixed by offering a private car (at a loss) for these people, if their numbers are small enough.

Another big fix would be to have the vans take people not to their homes, but to near-highway drop off points where pre-arranged cabs or car services are waiting. Slightly more expensive perhaps, but in fact you could have a arrangements with the car services to include all this in the billing and give a better rate than ordinary metered service. For a discount, customers could also arrange their own pickup at the drop-off point, perhaps by family. With cell phone warnings this becomes pretty easy.

This is a lot more efficient than dragging all the other passengers along to everybody else's house, and indeed in having the large van do this.

If it weren't for all the monopoly regulations on taxis, this could even be done without owning cars and drivers. You would just have deals to allocate larger taxis to both the long-haul and short haul. Of course at the end of the long-haul, the last 2 destinations could be dropped off directly.

Now, you can do something of this with the train (though annoyingly the two cab rides to and from the train were $10 each even though very short) in this town, but the trains are only every half hour, and the non-express trains stop a lot. And it's a lot of bag hauling. The BART to the train is badly timed. I had insult added to injury when, because it was Dec 31, no cab company would send a cab to meet my train -- they all insisted I must call them from the platform and wait for their cab. They said it was just that night.

Of course a lot could also be done just by optimizing the routes to the drop-off destinations. Sometimes random collections of people demand a crazy path for the van, adding to the unpredictability.


If you lived in Seattle, you'd be able to use the often superb Shuttle Express service. When I first moved here more than a decade ago, it was a toss-up between getting a friend to drive you, driving and leaving the car, and using Shuttle Express. Timing and cost were all reasonable variables to measure.

Starting after a major airport renovation about three years ago, Shuttle Express has made use of this modern innovation you discuss, the Difference Engine, and it's pretty remarkable. It's not so amazing when you're picked up -- you can reserve on the Web, prepay, etc.

But when you arrive, you go to their booth right next to where you're picked up. There's rarely a line, even in the busiest of circumstances. You give a phone number and you're always in the system. They hit a button and your name goes into the queue.

By the time I've walked the 25 feet to their waiting area--benches with heaters underneath since you're in the garage proper--my name is already up on a screen showing which van I'm waiting for by number. The van usually arrives in anything from 1 to 10 minutes. We usually leave in < 10 minutes after that.

On many occasions when other travelers are light, they'll stick me on a shuttle that needs to pick people up on the way back in, and I'm home in less time that it would have taken to get a shuttle to a car parking area that's affordable near the airport.

An airport is full of people who are either driving themselves home (using a car left in a nearby lot) or are being met by friends who are driving them home. Either way, the car probably has spare seating.

Suppose we had a way for the people who don't have a ride arranged to match up with people who live in the same neighborhood and do have a ride arranged. Then they could carpool home, with the spare passenger paying a few bucks to offset the cost of gas. You could do the matching-up over the internet. The tricky thing would be arranging the meeting location.

Airports could easily facilitate either this sort of thing or simply more efficient taxi-sharing by putting up some signs representing popular destination areas. "Downtown", "SOMA", etcetera. If you're going to SOMA, you go stand by the SOMA sign, meet a few other people who also are, and hail a single cab. Or carpool.

I've heard that at some airports it is forbidden to troll for ride-shares, because taxi drivers politically outweigh tourists.

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