‘Circuit’ Broken: There’s a New Microtransit Service in Town (Sort Of)
Well, what did you expect — a free ride from The Free Ride?
Williamsburg residents have started seeing cool nine-seat electric vans plying the area’s already crowded streets — and some people, apparently, are enjoying free shuttle service to wherever they want to go in the neighborhood, courtesy of a company called Circuit (formerly The Free Ride).
Except there’s one catch to this “unpaid Uber” or “low-cost Lyft”: It doesn’t always work. In fact, in Streetsblog’s spot test, it didn’t work at all.
The service is the latest effort by entrepreneurs to make a buck while offering to solve the so-called “first mile/last mile” problem of public transportation: getting you to or from a subway station, or on short trips inside a neighborhood, without involving a private car or gas-guzzling cab.
In Circuit’s case, the company claims it has six electric vans that pick up riders at requested addresses in Williamsburg and a sliver of Greenpoint (see zone map, right). The premise is simple: Type in your desired pickup and drop-off addresses and Circuit picks you up. The service is entirely supported by advertisers — currently Vita Coco and Street Easy. (You even get a Vita Coco sample, which Circuit co-founder Alex Esposito calls “a win-win because the advertiser gets to interact in a way that’s better than a billboard.”)
Esposito created The Free Ride with James Mirras in the Hamptons in 2011 — hooking up with advertisers who would pay the company to shuttle around beachgoers and ply them with the advertisers’ goodies. Esposito and Mirras also got something on the side: They got noticed on the party circuit. And local officials on the East End seemed pleased with anything that would keep drivers (drunk drivers, especially) from using their own cars.
Circuit now operates in several cities, including San Diego, where, Esposito says, the company responded to — and won — a request for proposals to help the city get more people to use municipal parking lots on the edge of town rather than merely driving around looking for parking.
“They said they had a mobility problem and a parking problem,” Esposito said. “We were fortunate enough to win a subsidy from the city to provide the service. The big difference between us and Uber is we’re free, we’re all electric, and we pay our drivers an hourly wage.”
Esposito said Circuit is forming partnerships with cities on declining transit routes. “We’ve had some cities with some routes that didn’t have the ridership to justify 40-passenger buses,” he said.
In Williamsburg, Esposito admitted Circuit is hoping for “support” — that means money — from government or local community groups.
“Lyft and Uber come in, saturate the road cars driven by independent contractors from all over, and that’s been bad for congestion,” he said. “But in our model, we pay our drivers hourly, creating local jobs, and we only put out the optimal number of vehicles so we don’t add to congestion.”
Yes, well, about that word “optimal…”
Streetsblog tested Circuit twice in the last two business days. On Friday, one reporter stood on S. Fifth Street for an hour waiting for a Circuit van driven by Omega that was always “five minutes away,” according to the app. Several attempts to reach the driver via the in-app messaging system failed. After one hour, the reporter canceled the ride and received this message, “Are you sure you want to cancel your ride, with the driver on their way?” (Yes, we were sure.)
On Monday morning, a different reporter summoned a Circuit from S. Eighth Street, and the map showed that driver Summer was nearby. But within a minute, a Circuit employee called the reporter to say that the ride would not arrive for at least an hour because there was only one driver on duty for the entire neighborhood. The reporter canceled the ride.
Esposito said he would look into what happened, but added, “The biggest problem with the service right now is rider demand. When the ride doesn’t go through, it means the service is too busy. This is a short-term pilot.”