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Originally published Sunday, April 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft Connector: 19 routes, 53 buses later

It started with five routes and a dozen buses. Now, 19 routes and 53 buses later, Microsoft's employee shuttle service has become ubiquitous in neighborhoods around Seattle and the Eastside. The company claims it's now one of the largest company-owned bus services in the United States.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

The Microsoft Connector

Ridership: More than 10,000 unique employees have ridden the Connector since its start date in September 2007. On average, 3,000 daily trips are taken on the system by Microsoft employees.

Fleet: The company has 53 buses, including eight spare buses, with a capacity of 5,586 daily seats. The buses are leased, and the system is operated by MV Transportation, out of California.

Environmental impact: Microsoft estimates that about 6.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide have been saved since the program's start date. That's how much carbon dioxide that would have been produced had the Connector riders driven the average single-occupancy vehicle to work instead.

Source: Microsoft

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It started with five routes and a dozen buses. Nineteen routes and 53 buses later, Microsoft's employee shuttle service has become ubiquitous in neighborhoods around Seattle and the Eastside.

The Microsoft Connector, which began in September 2007, is now one of the largest company-owned employee bus services in the United States, Microsoft says.

The white buses shuttle workers to the Redmond campus from stops in West Seattle, Ballard, Wallingford and other areas where public transit to Redmond is indirect and time-consuming. The buses move employees across the region's clogged roadways in comfort and style, with secure Wi-Fi service, comfy seats, luggage racks, electrical outlets and cup holders.

Commutes on the Microsoft bus tend to be more productive than social. Once they're on the bus, most passengers pop open their laptops, check their e-mail and get to work. Cellphone chats are discouraged, and conversations take place in the softest of voices. The workday has either begun, or is extended.

Because of the Wi-Fi access, "a lot more of my time is productive time," said Microsoft worker Jacob Oshins, who lives in Wallingford and plugs into his company e-mail both coming and going. The bus has been a help because "the worst part of working in tech is going to the 'burbs," he said.

Company-organized van pools have long been a way to ease the commute in the Puget Sound area, and many employers have shuttles that take workers to and from different company locations. But a network of express buses taking workers from home to work is something of a novelty here. They're more common in the Silicon Valley, where Google, Genentech and Yahoo all run employee bus services, according to 511 Rideshare, a California organization that supports employee ridership programs.

Google has been shuttling employees to work since 2004. And although Microsoft and Google are archrivals in many other ways, neither is trying to out-bus the other.

Still, Google might just beat out Microsoft in ridership: 3,200 daily trips are taken by its employees, versus Microsoft's average count of 3,000 daily trips.

Because Google's bus service started first, was Microsoft inspired by Google? Not at all, Microsoft spokesman Lou Gellos says. "The Connector, to be honest, has been on the drawing board even before they did theirs."

Compared to public transit services like Metro, the number of commuters taking Microsoft's buses is a drop in the traffic-congestion bucket. Metro, for example, counts almost 400,000 daily boardings per weekday. (Some of those Metro riders are also Microsoft employees, incidentally, because the company offers workers free bus passes.) During the busiest hours of the commute, Metro usually has about 1,100 buses on the street.

"We see this as complementary," said Victor Obeso, manager of service development for Metro Transit. Obeso said Metro has worked with Microsoft to make sure the routes between city buses and company buses fit together. Microsoft "is just taking it to the next level in terms of support," he said.

The Commuter fills gaps in the public transit system because it's nimble and flexible in a way that no public transit system could be, Gellos said. The company frequently tweaks the routes, adding or subtracting stops when it needs to, and targeting neighborhoods with clusters of Microsoft employees where public transit service to Redmond is time-consuming or requires at least one transfer. The buses typically make just three to five stops before heading to Redmond, speeding the commute time.

The Connector system also runs a bicycle shuttle, which can port up to 12 bikes across the Highway 520 floating bridge, which does not have a bike lane. In addition, Microsoft's Shuttle Connect buses move workers to and from its different office locations around the region.

Bus driver John Patterson said he's often looked into his rearview mirror on a dark evening to see the faces of his passengers illuminated by the soft glow of their laptop monitors. The buses are run by a California company, MV Transportation, which is the largest privately held transportation-management company in the U.S.

"These are really hardworking people," Patterson marveled. "They use their computers coming and going all the time."

Gellos said Microsoft's bus service has a unique online reservation service, which keeps track of who's expected to show up. Drivers won't kick people off if they don't have a reservation, but the data collected help Microsoft track its ridership.

And the company can keep close tabs on the amount of carbon it's keeping out of the atmosphere, helping employees feel good about their green credentials.

Google doesn't require a reservation to ride the company bus, although employees do have to wave their badge at a card reader when they first get on, said Google spokeswoman Therese Lim.

Does that speak to a fundamental difference between the two corporate cultures — laid-back Google versus more, uh, straight-laced Microsoft?

Lim laughed but gently declined to draw any conclusions about the reservation service.

"No, our shuttles don't work that way," she said. "We estimate the number of Googlers, and Googlers just show up."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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