How This Shell-Backed Unicorn Is Rewiring Transit In Key Cities Like Miami And Los Angeles

Daniel Ramot has the kind of education that is a marquee: degrees in physics, maths, and electrical engineering and capped with the Ph.D. in neuroscience at Stanford that prepares students for jobs in medicine, science technology, or AI.

“My mother always says to me, “After all this schooling that you’ve received, how did you become as a taxi driver? But I always reply, “No, I’m no. It’s me, a bus driver and bus driver,'” he jokes. Ten years ago, Ramot and longtime friend Oren Shoval, who holds a Ph.D. in system biology, decided to put aside their academic interests to start an organization that aimed to reinvent the world of public transport.

“We looked at this and thought, ‘There’s virtually no technology in transit,'” says 45-year-old Ramot co-founded Via Transport with Shoval, 44, in the year 2012. The search for ways to improve traffic flow and adapt routes to commuters in real-time posed “this exciting math problem,” Ramot says. It’s also one that could be a social benefit. “If we solved it and got it to work.” He says that “we would have this positive impact on society.”

As Uber came onto the scene a few years prior in the hopes of disrupting urban transportation, the Via, a company based in New York, Via, began to collaborate with municipalities as well as within the existing infrastructure. The result was that Via currently works with cities such as Miami, Jersey City, Los Angeles, Winnipeg, and Arlington, Texas, providing an on-demand software platform for “micro-transit” van rides, paratransit services routing planning, driver scheduling smartphones, and other tools to aid struggling urban transit systems attract commuters back. The list of Via’s clients comprises more than 500 transport organizations across 35 countries. The software provides rides for seniors or people who have limited mobility and colleges and schools and vanpools for corporate customers.

The company, which is privately owned, has raised $650 million, with the sum of $60 million raised in March from giants of the industrial sector like Shell and Ferrari parent company Exor and several venture capital funds. (Porsche is an indirect investor thanks to the acquisition by Via of Fleetonomy.) It’s currently valued at $2.9 billion as per Pitchbook. The annual revenue was $225 million in 2019, the only year data can be found, Pitchbook says. The majority comes from transit agencies and municipal authorities, according to Ramot.

Financially, Via may soon be able to take its business up to the next stage. According to an individual who knows the issue, Via could soon be earning a profit and could be listed within a few months. Ramot cannot confirm a specific plan but has said that Via should be a publicly-traded company in the past. “We work with cities, and we work with transit agencies,” Ramot tells Forbes. “They use taxpayer funds to provide essential services to citizens. I believe that this kind of company ought to be scrutinized in the same way that the market offers.”

A public listing will be in line with plans of administration officials in the Biden Administration to handout tens of billions of dollars in transportation funding in the infrastructure bill worth $1 trillion. If it passes in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House–far from certain as liberal and moderate factions bicker over also moving forward with a separate $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package–the bill would provide “$39 billion of new investment to modernize transit and improve availability for the elderly and public with disabilities, in continuing the current transit programs for five years as part of surface transportation reauthorization,” according to the White House.

Via’s CEO Daniel Ramot, who has obtained a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford and sees tackling transportation challenges in the form of “a fascinating math problem.”

“They’re beautifully positioned for a lot of big things that will be happening in transit,” says John Rossant, CEO of NewCities Foundation and founder of the CoMotion transportation conferences in Los Angeles and Miami, who is not a stakeholder in Via.

By collaborating in direct partnership with transit organizations instead of creating the appearance of a taxi service, Via has sought to stand out from Uber and Lyft that have had troubled relations with cities throughout the time. 

The company has developed Uber-like TransitTech applications customized to individual cities and transit programs designed for commuters to book van rides on demand and update them on the schedule of transit and connections. In some instances, you can prepurchase train and bus tickets. It also makes available data on demand from apps to aid transit agencies in modifying bus schedules, stops, and routes regularly, usually every week or once, to accommodate changing requests from riders and traffic trends.

Ramot says that Via’s mission is to assist transit operators in increasing ridership and filling in the gaps in their systems, ensuring that commuters with low incomes and physically disabled can access public transport. Microtransit tickets booked via Via “typically cost $1 to $3, similar to taking a bus,” states Via spokesperson Caroline Hawkins. The micro transit option isn’t a way to annoy unionized train and bus drivers. They can either work as van drivers or agencies and add employees covered by collective bargaining agreements regarding wages and benefits.

“I see companies like Via as civic tech–civically minded and technology-enabled,” says transportation expert Timothy Papandreou, a former director of Google’s Waymo autonomous car division, as well as the founder of Emerging Transport Advisors who has also invested in Via. “That’s where the future is.”

More powerful, well-funded rivals Uber and Lyft agree; they’re seeking more partnerships with cities and could be more of a direct threat to Via. Both companies coordinate shared bikes and scooter applications, incorporate plans and transit stop information in their apps, and, in some instances, offer the option of purchasing tickets to train and buses. In the past year, Uber bought Atlanta-based Routematch, the software company that aids transit organizations, hoping to expand in the market.

“Transit is growing in the way that we see it here,” says Chris Pangilinan, Uber’s head of public transportation policy globally and global issues. “As public are beginning to get back out and traveling again, we’re seeing that public transportation agencies are looking at ways to serve different parts of their cities in new ways.”

They include micro-transit and paratransit programs similar to the ones Via specializes in and more effective cooperation with transit authorities to transfer commuters from trains to ride services and buses. Pangilinan estimates Uber has a working relationship with over 500 transit agencies across the globe.

The competition also comes from tech-based transit companies like Israel-based Moovit, which was acquired from Intel by 2020. It’s the world’s most downloaded transit application and has more than 1 billion users. It also offers software and data to assist transit companies in making their systems more adaptable and responsive to demand from riders.

For New York and Washington, Via provides commercial ride service. Via says that its rates are generally cheaper than the rival Uber and Lyft pool services due to Ramot and Shoval’s algorithms to consolidate several riders traveling in the same direction into one. According to spokesperson Hawkins, Via’s strategy is to design “virtual” bus stops to optimize efficiency, dropping passengers a block or two away from their final location to transfer the maximum number of people in the shortest time. (At the time of the Covid-19 epidemic in 2020, New York City banned pooled rides provided through Via, Uber, and Lyft. Via has resumed its pooled service in July 2021. Uber and Lyft haven’t yet followed suit.)

Daniel Ramot and CTO Oren Shoval became friends when enlisted in the top Israeli military research program in the early 1990s. Nowadays, Ramot is located in New York, while Shoval is based out of Tel Aviv.

Transit experts say that invigorating the declining number of riders on transit, which will be a significant hit in 2020 due to this pandemic, isn’t simply necessary to reduce congestion in cities. As per the International Energy Agency, it’s becoming increasingly essential by national and local authorities to curb carbon emissions that cause climate change from private automobiles, which are predicted to rise sharply by 2021.

Via will be “purpose-built to fill gaps, where transit agencies have historically struggled,” states Seleta Reynolds, the general director for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. In October, the department will resume a micro-transit service based on Via that was stopped due to the pandemic, which targets the low-income “transit desert” on the city’s Westside with a limited connection to conventional bus routes.

“Via will assist in planning, and will be acting as a type of switchboard operator who has to respond to the request for the taxi (from apps or a phone call) . . . and (LADOT) employees who manage the vehicle,” Reynolds says. “That’s a bit of pretty sophisticated technology that transit agencies haven’t traditionally done very well.”

Ramot claims that in 2011, co-founder Shoval was motivated by the difficulties that he encountered when trying to get taxis in one of Israel’s “sherut” taxi vans, which didn’t use apps for smartphones at the time.

“He’s standing there trying to catch one, and they keep going by, and they’re all full, so he can’t get a seat,” Ramot states. “He’s thinking to himself, ‘You know, if I could just book a seat on an app, that would solve the problem.’ And then with that was the idea, ‘Well, if I’m booking a seat on my app, and I can check where I am and where I want to go, then what if the routes could become dynamic to match the actual demand and not just one fixed route?'”

The two engineering engineers started sketching the concept for Via.

Ramot observes the differences between Via’s strategy and those of other firms. “There’s a fundamental difference in the sense that, in one case, you’re saying the public transit system is what it is, and I’m going to help you, the rider, utilize it most efficiently,” Ramot says.

“What Via says is, “We’re going to transform the public transportation system. We’ll improve it. We’ll tell you how to utilize it better. However, we’re also getting involved and introducing new methods of transportation, such as micro transit. We’re changing the way vehicles are routed and the schedule of drivers to improve the efficiency of the system.”

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Adam Collins
Adam writes about technology, business and economics. With master's degree in Economics, he's presented six papers in international conferences. As a solivagant in the constant state of fernweh, curiosity is the main weapon in his arsenal.

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