On-demand shuttle vans hailed through an Uber-style app will begin offering free rides in central Buckhead’s business, residential and commercial district in January, in a new Buckhead Community Improvement District program one board member calls “revolutionary.”

The fleet of four, free-roaming vans will replace the existing “buc” bus, an old-school commuter shuttle service that operates on limited routes only serving MARTA stations and two office complexes. The new service can take people anywhere in the general areas of the business district, Buckhead Village and the Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls. The idea is that trips directly to and from MARTA stops will always be free, but riders eventually may be charged a fee for other destinations.

A Via-operated on-demand shuttle van in Arlington, Texas, as shown in a promotional video.

“I think this will be the beginning of something much bigger,” said Jim Bacchetta at a Sept. 25 meeting where he and fellow BCID board members approved the program at a cost of up to $687,000. “I really believe this is going to be something revolutionary.”

The service will be operated by a company called Via, which runs similar systems across the country and around the world. Via’s shuttles in Arlington, Texas, are a particular model for the Buckhead version. The nonprofit Livable Buckhead will manage the program.

Joel Mann of Stantec, a consultant hired by Livable Buckhead to come up with better shuttle options, calls the Via system “on-demand microtransit” and a “midway point” between a traditional shuttle bus and the app-based car-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

The decision by the BCID, a self-taxing group of commercial property owners, marks the end of the line for the “buc,” which Livable Buckhead has operated for 16 years. After service cutbacks in recent years, the “buc” now consists of two 24-passenger buses that exclusively connect two MARTA stations with two office complexes: Buckhead Station to Piedmont Center and Lenox Station to Lenox Park. The “buc” runs six hours a day, only during rush hours, and is free.

The Via service will start with four 12-passenger vans, with a fifth in reserve if demand requires it. Via will run up to eight hours a day, including during the lunch hour. And instead of fixed routes aimed at office complex commuters, the vans will be available throughout the central area. Specific service boundaries have not been determined yet, but can be set and changed easily, Mann said. Much like Uber or Lyft, Via will use a phone app that allows riders to call for the van and see how long it will take to arrive.

If the BCID eventually decides to start charging for rides to non-transit destinations, Mann said, Via can easily changing that, too. He said that, as a model for the study, he used an estimated fee of $3 a ride. Via would not take any cut of such a fee, which instead would go to the BCID. “The revenue is 100% yours,” Mann said.

Via will cost the BCID more than the “buc,” whose current tab is $477,000 a year, of which Lenox Park’s owners pay $211,000. The Via service package will run about $615,000, including one-time start-up and marketing costs, and the reserve vehicle could cost up to $72,000 more if it’s needed.

The general response from the BCID board was positive. “I think the overall concept is excellent,” said Robin Suggs, the general manager of Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza. She said it could help to cut car traffic in the shopping district.

Board members briefly discussed whether to experiment with the service during more limited hours, but voted on the broadest package after BCID Executive Director Jim Durrett urged them to. “Don’t handcuff us to start with,” said Durrett, holding up his arms with his wrists pressed together.

Bacchetta, who represents Highwood Properties on the board, was the most enthusiastic. He called Via a “supercharged Uber” that is “so much more efficient” than the single-passenger vehicles typically used by ride-hailing apps. He suggested the model will spread and could help with larger traffic issues, such as Cobb County commuting.

“Imagine a bunch of these vehicles all over the metro area,” he said.

Meanwhile, the “buc” is still running. The board also approved an additional $82,100 to extend the old shuttle’s contract through the end of the year.

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