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Google acquires tech company behind BART Perks Program, quietly ends partnership

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A pilot program that encouraged BART riders to travel at off-peak times is in jeopardy after Google acquired the company that provided the technology for the program. (Cindy Chew/2009 S.F. Examiner)
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A pilot program meant to ease crowding on BART may face a stumbling block from an unlikely source: Google.

The search-engine giant recently acquired a core technology company, Urban Engines, that provided the backbone of the BART Perks Program — but well before the end of the program pilot Tuesday, Google quietly prepared Urban Engines to end its partnership with BART, according to public records obtained by the San Francisco Examiner.

In the communications obtained by a public records request, transit officials said the perks program successfully eased some crowding on BART trains during crushing commutes.

Now, the program may be back to square one, as BART tries to identify other vendors that could provide the tech behind its perks program.

“Google has decided not to continue with commuter incentives programs,” wrote Dave Parker, a deployment engineer at Urban Engines, to BART Principal Planner Ryan Greene-Roesel and Jia Tong, staff at a Singapore-based transportation program, in November 2016.

Parker meant to connect BART to a similar program in Singapore, Travel Smart Rewards, so the two could find a replacement for Urban Engines together.

“The BART Perks pilot will be finishing in February 2017 and Ryan would like to explore options for keeping the program running with a new vendor,” Parker wrote. “While Urban Engines won’t be continuing in this area I hope the incentives idea will live on at … BART.”

The BART Perks Program pilot began last year as a partnership between BART and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. A federal grant gave the agencies a pool of money, which was disbursed to riders in the program when they traveled during off-peak hours and at less-used stations.

Essentially, it’s a way of offering a carrot for riders to use BART smartly.

But Urban Engines’ technology, what it calls “location analytics,” is useful for more than just BART and may now be integrated into Google Maps, according to Urban Engines.

“Location analytics is an important focus for both Urban Engines and Google,” the company wrote in a blog post that announced its acquisition, “and we’re excited to combine forces to help organizations better understand how the world moves.”

When the acquisition was first announced in September 2016, BART and the SFCTA did not immediately voice that they anticipated Google would pull Urban Engines out of the program.

It was only in emails as late as November 2016 that it became clear Google would pull Urban Engines from an anticipated permanent perks program, which has yet to be proposed.

When the Examiner contacted Google to ask why it pulled Urban Engines from the BART program, Google spokesperson Elizabeth Davidoff did not directly answer interview questions.

Instead, she emailed BART and the SFCTA to coordinate answers, and wrote the Examiner’s “exact question is Google-specific, but since I didn’t know how/when BART would be addressing the program’s end externally, I decided to connect with the Urban Engines team and you all before getting back” to the Examiner.

It remains to be seen why Google pulled Urban Engines out from future participation with BART’s permanent program.

“The program was always scheduled to run for six months beginning in August 2016 and ending in February 2017,” Davidoff wrote of the pilot program. “For more info on next steps or the future of the program, BART and SFCTA are better sources.”

Though Google declined to directly answer the question, the future of BART’s Perks Program, it seems, does not include Urban Engines.

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