In a workspace looking like a model train enthusiast’s dream come true, a South San Francisco transportation company is crafting a vision to revolutionize the region’s travel habits.
Amid a sweeping network of wooden tracks, prototype vehicles and elevated platforms, the Glydways team is fine-tuning an electric shuttle system imagined to help unclog the region’s traffic congestion.
Though the model appears slightly crude in its current setting, the company plans eventually to build an autonomous system of small electric cars that can be hailed on-demand like an Uber or Lyft.
CEO Mark Seeger said the company offers a unique bargain proposition of a quality rider experience, plus a low cost to both cities and user combined with a high volume capacity and a small carbon footprint.
“We can go to a city like South San Francisco and say ‘you have a localized transportation problem and we can solve that’ and be viable for them and us and that’s never been done before,” said Seeger.
The system, proposed to cost about $30 million to build, is imagined as a connector between public transit stops like Caltrain, BART or the ferries to concentrated job centers.
Though the cost may invite sticker shock in some circles, Seeger noted the system is substantially cheaper than other public transportation programs such as light rail or traditional train options.
The isolated Glydways system is intended to not interfere with streets reserved for cars, so the company claims it would alleviate congestion. Glydways cars are proposed to travel between 30-60 mph, with a system capacity accommodating between 2,000 and 6,000 riders.
An initial rendering shows a pilot route spanning roughly 1 mile from the new Caltrain stop near downtown along Forbes Boulevard east of Highway 101 to the Genentech campus and nearby ferry terminal at Oyster Point. But other iterations show that track expanding to both the South San Francisco and San Bruno BART stations, extending the system’s reach to more than 4 miles.
The tracks could run in a space as small as a bike lane, or be elevated to limit the competition for valuable space in congested areas. South San Francisco is interested in an elevated system, Glydways officials said.
As a signal of the city’s interest in the proposal, South San Francisco officials in July paid $30,000 to help complete an environmental study. The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors showed interest in the program as well and will entertain a proposal at an upcoming meeting to contribute toward advancing the company’s planning too.
Supervisor Dave Pine toured the Glydways facility with South San Francisco City Manager Mike Futrell in August to get a sense of the company’s vision. And Glydways officials said interest is spreading regionally, with other Bay Area communities intrigued by the proposal too.
For his part, Pine admired the ambitious nature of the Glydways vision.
“It’s an interesting combination of autonomous vehicle technology and on-demand service and mass transit. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever come across and I’m very intrigued by it,” he said.
Acknowledging he needed to see more details about the technology, operational details and financing before drawing any conclusions about the program’s viability, Pine said he believes it could help solve sticky transportation issues.
“It does seem to be best suited for the last mile challenge,” he said, alluding to the difficulties connecting commuters with transit hubs and workplaces.
Seeger said the systems make the most sense in dense job and residential centers, and acknowledged the company has an opportunity to prove its value for workers hoping to simplify their commute as a go-between for larger public transportation options.
To that end, the area east of Highway 101 in South San Francisco could be an ideal location to build the track, said Seeger. Not just because the company’s office is in the area, but because the existing infrastructure struggles mightily to accommodate the demand placed by the city’s thriving biotech sector.
With an expectation that as many as 30,000 more employees could eventually work in the city’s life sciences sector, Glydways officials believe their system could help offset much of the traffic jam projected to grow in the area.
Recognizing it is no small task to pry drivers out of their car and into a public transportation alternative, Seeger said the low cost of his service could be a key attraction.
The company is able to control costs by building its network out of materials available on the open market, and operating the system efficiently through a uniquely-designed system. The potential to cut its reliance on fossil fuel with solar power makes it most cost effective too.
The result is one that is cheap for operators and riders, with trips expected to cost in the neighborhood of $2. That sum is negotiable though, depending on whether the system is build with public revenue, private equity, or some combination of the two, said Seeger.
With an expectation these terms will continued to be hammered out as the company matures, Seeger said Glydways is satisfied with growing from humble beginnings.
“We like the idea of starting small,” he said, from the office adjacent to the workspace holding a miniature version of the company’s big idea.