Camden rolls out new on-demand public transport shuttle vans citywide

In a city where nearly half of renters don’t own personal vehicles, Camden leaders are hoping to close the social equity gap in transportation.

A close-up of a van emblazoned with the words Camden Loop

The vans can hold up to six passengers each and the tech startup Via hired local residents $22 an hour to drive them. (Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza/WHYY)

It’s been five years since Tameeka Mason has driven a car. The North Camden mother has a driver’s license but doesn’t feel comfortable on the road.

For years, Mason has cobbled together bus rides to go grocery shopping, travel for work, and drop off her son for school events.

But for the past month, Mason has been a frequent rider of a new public transit program, an on-demand shuttle van service known as Camden Loop.

She books a ride on her smartphone, then walks to a virtual bus stop. The mobile app created by technology startup Via leverages an algorithm to match her with fellow riders headed in the same direction and drops her off within 100 feet of her destination.

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A screenshot of the Camden Loop mobile app
The Camden Loop mobile app created by tech startup Via leverages an algorithm to group together riders headed in the same direction for on-demand public transport. (Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza/WHYY)

“I live in North Camden, we don’t have a market. And so I have to go over to the next neighborhood in order to be able to get groceries,” she said. “So the Camden Loop has been helpful.”

Mason even convinced her elderly neighbor who was having trouble with her regular medical transportation provider to use the on-demand service.

“It’s very versatile and it just gives us an opportunity to access all of the services here in the city,” she said.

A view from above of Tameeka Mason shaking hands with New Jersey Assemblyman Bill Moen Jr. as people look on.
North Camden resident Tameeka Mason who hails rides with the loop vans shakes hands with New Jersey Assemblyman Bill Moen Jr. during the public launch of Camden Loop. (Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza/WHYY)

More than 3,000 rides have been taken since the free pilot began on June 13. Starting July 17, the flat fare for each rider is $2 anywhere within Camden city limits. The service will run Monday through Friday between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. during the first phase of the program.

The mobile app is also translated into Spanish and the city plans to provide information in Vietnamese too. Individuals without access to the internet can book a ride over the phone 856-408-1669. Future plans include monthly pass options and other discounted ride bundles. The rider fares will be reinvested back into the public transit program, officials said.

Via operates the vans that hold up to six passengers each. It already has five vans on the road and hired 19 local residents as drivers paying $22 an hour. The drivers don’t accept tips.

Camden officials surveyed residents last year about barriers to health care access and employment opportunities. They found that lack of transportation was a common concern.

“Our work is based on a collaborative model with a resident-first approach and an unwavering commitment to improving the social determinants of health for the city,” said Dana Redd, president and CEO of Camden Community Partnership.

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Dana Redd speaks at a podium outside of Camden City Hall.
Dana Redd president and CEO of Camden Community Partnership said her organization surveyed residents and found that lack of access to transportation was a top priority. (Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza/WHYY)

For example, there’s a new veterans services office expected to open in Camden but there’s often military veterans without reliable access to transportation, officials said.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy earmarked $2 million for the pilot program last year. There’s another $4.2 million in the state appropriations budget to keep the public transit system running.

The purpose of the Camden Loop is to complement — not compete against — the bus and light rail.

“The goal is to create a public transportation system that is as convenient and comfortable as riding in a car, but as affordable and sustainable as taking the bus,” said Eric Gardiner, East Coast partnerships director at Via. “This kind of flexible public transportation system allows for truly public shared rides without any of the inconvenient schedules or lengthy detours that you might encounter with other services.”

A similar service was launched about three years ago in Jersey City. Since then, Via drivers there have completed more than 1 million rides, Gardiner said.

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