LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This morning, we're continuing our stories about the way America commutes. For people who take public transportation, the most complicated part of the trip is what's called the last mile: getting from the train or the subway to your final destination - your workplace, your house.
Today, a California town where local businesses solved that last-mile problem, and helped to revive a community, with a free commuter shuttle. NPR's Richard Gonzales grew up not far from Emeryville, about 10 miles east of San Francisco. He has this report.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The Emeryville I knew in the 1960s was a small, industrial city best known for paint factories, tanneries and scrap-metal yards.
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GONZALES: Standing in Emeryville today, it's a very different place: home to Pixar Animation, and numerous software and biotech companies. But practically wherever you are, you can hop on something with a name that sounds more like an amusement park ride - the Emery Go Round - at no charge.
We're on a small bus, and it's full of morning rush-hour commuters like Sara Wildfang. She lives in San Francisco, where her commute began on a city bus, and then a BART train. But if this shuttle didn't exist where she works in Emeryville?
SARA WILDFANG: Oh, gosh. I'd just have to do some research and figure it out. I'm really dependent on this, and I rely on it; and I'm very thankful for it.
GONZALES: This shuttle is a big draw for companies headquartered here - like Leap Frog, Jamba Juice and Peet's Coffee. That's an impressive line-up for a city just over one square mile. But the idea for the shuttle germinated back in the late 1980s, when post-industrial Emeryville was in pitiful shape, and John Flores was hired as the new city manager.
JOHN FLORES: Forty percent of the land was vacant, and there was a lot of opportunity out there.
GONZALES: Emeryville was ideally situated to attract new business. But looking down the road, Flores could anticipate all of the traffic that would come with it. So he offered to help consolidate the few private shuttles that were already operating in town. Before long, it exceeded expectations.
FLORES: Initially, a shuttle was carrying 300 people a day. Within approximately six months, that amount went up to 3,000 people a day.
GONZALES: But what made the Emery Go Round really succeed was the decision by the business property owners to form what's known as an improvement district. They essentially taxed themselves, to support the shuttle.
DAVID DOWNEY: Emeryville was absolutely an early adopter of using business improvement districts to support transportation.
GONZALES: David Downey is the president of an organization that promotes improvement districts. They're more common around the country for augmenting city services like sidewalk sweeping and park maintenance.
DOWNEY: You know, government and municipal resources, quite frankly, will never be able to fully accommodate the needs of a growing society. And transportation is a key element of that society that we're trying to meet the needs of.
RICH ROBBINS: I've always seen it as a great investment.
GONZALES: Rich Robbins is the largest property holder in Emeryville, and one of the original business owners that created the shuttle.
ROBBINS: I do believe it's a template, particularly in smaller towns, where you have limited parking and your downtowns are dying; and move people seamlessly around the area.
GONZALES: See you later.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right. Thank you.
GONZALES: And it's not just commuters who benefit. The shuttle was expanded to run on weekends, and to shopping areas. There were 1.5 million boardings on the Emery Go Round last year. But...
KAREN HEMPHILL: The buses are full. The buses are at capacity.
GONZALES: Karen Hemphill is the assistant to Emeryville's city manager. She's worried that the system is experiencing real growing pains.
HEMPHILL: There's some concern if you don't keep growing, then you start having the same kind of downward spiraling circle that many mass transit operators have: Demand goes up, costs go up, you can't cover those costs, you start cutting back service, you start losing ridership.
GONZALES: Hemphill says discussions are just starting on whether the city might have to eventually supplement the shuttle's funding.
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GONZALES: At the end of the day, passengers are jumping off the Emery Go Round and rushing through the BART station turnstiles. Many of them are facing another last mile to get back home. Commuter Tim Means says he wishes there was a service like the Emery Go Round on the home leg of his trip to a suburb of San Francisco.
TIM MEANS: My last mile going home is in a car. If there was an Emery Go Round-like service, then I wouldn't have to call and get picked up at the BART station. I'd just be able to hop on that, and head straight home.
GONZALES: One city that's looking right now to Emeryville for inspiration is the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View, home to Google and Intuit. It's announced plans for a free shuttle service similar to the Emery Go Round. But what works in Emeryville may not work everywhere; and questions like who rides, and who pays, are ultimately local decisions.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News.