It’s finally here. The much-anticipated, free on-demand shuttle program in National City is now in service.
People can request trips to go anywhere within the service area through a smartphone app or by flagging down an available vehicle on the street.
“The No. 1 thing is this will give people the opportunity to really get out more, find out about a lot more things that are in our city, especially because there are areas where there is no bus service or other transportation options,” said Mayor Ron Morrison.
FRANC, short for Free Rides Around National City, is the South County city-branded version of Circuit Transit, which launched in 2011 in New York as The Free Ride. Today, it operates with only electric vehicles across eight states. Elsewhere in San Diego County, the company offers trips to Carlsbad, Chula Vista, Oceanside, Pacific Beach and San Diego.
Circuit’s FRED program in downtown San Diego is one of its most popular. Since August 2016, shuttles have traveled more than 1 million miles, completed 1.2 million trips and saved 120,000 gallons of gas, according to the company. The city decided earlier this year to extend its contract with the company through April 2024 at a cost of $1.2 million.
In National City, the shuttle program was funded by three major sources. The project started with $1.5 million in grant monies the California Air Resources Board awarded the city and 20 others in 2021 to launch programs that boost transportation options while also lowering carbon emissions. Funds paid for its development and will cover three years of operations. In June, the city council hired Circuit for $2 million to manage day-to-day operations, advertising and the mobile app, as well as hire drivers. In July, the Port of San Diego stepped in with $400,000.
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The city wanted to have shuttles running by the fall of 2022, but project cost increases and finalizing details such as determining a service area and the hours of operations caused delays, according to city staff.
FRANC is starting with a fleet of two electric vehicles that each seat up to six people. Circuit hired seven National City residents to drive the shuttles, said Mark Iannon, a company spokesperson. If others are interested in applying, they can do so on their website, he added. Minors can use the shuttle, but riders should abide by state car seat and child passenger laws. Pets are also welcome but they should stay on the rider’s lap or on the floor.
The goal is to add another shuttle and expand service, said Morrison, adding that the city will need to search for additional funding sources to make that happen. Some ideas include revenue from advertising, development fees, other grants or fares.
For now, vehicles are running within a 12.5-mile perimeter on the city’s west region, or anywhere west of Interstate 805.
Though hours may change, the FRANC operates seven days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. through 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.