Salem residents have a new way to move about the city without using their own vehicles, following the Dec. 16 launch of a ride-sharing service.
The Salem Skipper is a low-cost, on-demand transportation option introduced by the city in partnership with Via, a New York-based transit technology firm.
The service provides passenger vans to transport riders to and from Salem locations. Users hail a ride through a mobile phone app, or a phone call, and are provided with an estimated pickup time and a nearby “virtual bus stop” location to meet the vehicle. Each van carries up to six passengers — currently down to three because of COVID-19 — and two are wheelchair-accessible.
”We always try to create opportunities where you can live in Salem and have a car-free or car-light lifestyle,” said David Kucharsky, Salem’s director of traffic and parking.
The Salem Skipper differs from ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft in that it is municipally run and “all trips are intended to be shared rides,” Kucharsky said, citing also its low costs.
The fare for each ride is $2, or $1 for senior citizens, middle and high school-aged students, and people with disabilities. Riders get their first 10 trips free through Feb. 16.
”This is as an opportunity for Salem residents, commuters, and visitors to get around Salem easily and affordably,” Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said in a statement. “The Salem Skipper will get you from your home to a doctor’s appointment, from the office to the MBTA commuter rail station ... or anywhere you need to go in Salem without having to worry about parking.”
Alice Merkl recently took the Skipper from the Salem Pantry on Loring Avenue — where she volunteers — to her home on Federal Street.
”It was great. What’s nice is the app gives you the exact time it’s arriving — in my case 17 minutes — and then counts down that time for you,” she said. “The van picked me up right across from the pantry. I felt very safe because there was a plastic divider between the back seat and the driver. It was a very comfortable ride to my condo complex — almost to my door.”
Via partners with more than 150 municipalities, transit authorities, and other entities worldwide to offer mostly public on-demand ride-sharing services. The company supplies the technology, and in some cases — including Salem — also manages the operations.
The company also has partnerships with Newton for a senior ride-sharing program, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority, and Harvard and Northeastern universities.
After a market study showed demand for a ride-sharing service, Salem chose Via from among six vendors submitting proposals.
The city is paying Via $420,000 to operate the service for a nine-month pilot period. Via, which also retains the fare revenue, purchased four passenger vans and has been hiring independently contracted drivers, paid on an hourly basis.
Via’s technology matches passenger ride requests with available vans, whose drivers are dispatched automatically. It also analyzes usage patterns to determine where best to deploy the vans at any given time.
“We are proud to partner with ... Salem and Mayor Driscoll to introduce an innovative transit solution that expands access to jobs, education, healthcare, and leisure for the community,” Via CEO and cofounder Daniel Ramot said in an e-mailed statement.
Kucharsky said Salem is initially funding the service through a $175,000 state grant and payments provided to the city as part of several development projects. The city is seeking grants to continue the program after the nine-month period ends.
Despite the pandemic, more than 400 people have registered for the service to date.
”I wish it were starting under different circumstances,” Kucharsky said. “But I’m glad we were able to put another option out there for residents and visitors to try out.”
The Salem Skipper is available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday. For more information, go to salemskipper.com.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.