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CityFixer

Uber and Public Transit Are Trying to Get Along

Emerging partnerships hold promise for reducing car-reliance, but they raise questions about who’s winning out in the deal.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Uber isn't known for working peacefully with cities. Case in point: pretty much everywhere it's ever launched a new service. But the e-hail cab company seems to be making an effort with public transportation agencies in the U.S., at least if a few early partnerships are any indication.

In Dallas, DART riders can now access Uber via the agency’s mobile ticketing app, a program intended to simplify connections at transit stations. A similar smartphone union has emerged between Uber and MARTA in Atlanta. Transit agencies in Los Angeles and Minneapolis now cover Uber trips as part of their “guaranteed ride home” programs, which reimburse regular commuters who need to travel outside rush hour for an emergency.

Several others cities (Seattle and Tampa among them) are also discussing similar “first mile, last mile” arrangements with transit agencies, according to the Shared-Use Mobility Center, an interest group focusing on shared mobility, which is tracking the partnerships. The hope is that Uber, like other taxi outfits before it, can serve as a feeder option to and from bus and rail stops. Such coordination would benefit both sides by discouraging private car-reliance and encouraging more transit use.

“We’re really interested in promoting opportunities that will in fact get them adding value to transit,” says Sharon Feigon, the center’s executive director. “Ultimately having more options, especially options that are connected to the transit system in a good way, is going to benefit everyone.”

Part of a mobility ecosystem

The DART-Uber partnership emerged after a successful trial during this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dallas. The idea was to encourage people to ride transit into town for the festivities but help them get back home safely after one too many glasses of green beer. As for why such arrangements hadn’t been made with traditional cab companies, agency spokesman Morgan Lyons says Uber has a “coolness factor” that raises transit’s profile in a city where it’s often overlooked.

“Being relevant to that kind of community helped us a lot more in a way than just saying: ‘Ride DART,’” he says. “Taxi service here is different than in New York or D.C. It's not something folks think of quite as readily.”

Special events and service disruptions are a natural, if limited partnership opportunity. But Lyons says the agency also sees Uber (and other sharing services) as a potential means to reduce solo driving commutes as well—with employers also collaborating on car- or vanpools that connect workers to DART stations. With so many jobs within a half-mile of DART service but not necessarily walkable, the question is how to complete that “last bit of a trip.”

In Dallas, DART riders can now connect to Uber through the transit system’s GoPass app. (David Wilson / Flickr)

“We want to try to create some solutions,” he says. “Get them to use DART. But it's DART and. Not instead of.”

The and-versus-instead of discussion—essentially, the fear that people will use Uber to replace trips once made in part with transit—is one that Feigon hears frequently. There’s certainty a concern among some agencies that Uber will skim riders off the top of the system, she says. But in cities where transit demand is on the rise, agencies are often happy to see ride- and car-share operators provide service to lower-volume corridors that buses and trains can’t easily reach.

“It’s part of a bigger ecosystem,” she says. “Ultimately having all these things connected and easy to switch from one to the other is going to add the most value—if the goal is to get people out of the private automobile.”

Do cities get enough out of the deal?

A network where Uber and other micro-transit providers enhance access to the existing public transit system would be a big win for urban mobility. But given Uber’s public trust problem in cities, the natural question is whether agencies and residents are getting enough out of these deals.

Take the Dallas and Atlanta partnerships. As part of these arrangements, Uber is offering first-trip rebates up to $20 for new users. That nice gesture feels a lot less meaningful when you consider that Uber already offers a promo for first rides in the U.S.—and that the one available online goes up to $30.

Then there’s the tech integration itself. In DART’s GoPass app, for instance, the screen option of linking to Uber simply opens up the Uber app—a seamless transition, sure, but not an especially innovative one. The Peach Pundit had a similar experience with the MARTA app, leading the blog to perceive the arrangement as little more than yet another Uber publicity platform:

Truthfully, however, the word “partnership” may be overselling what is actually happening here. At this point, that partnership seems to entail simply giving MARTA users a free discount at Uber in exchange for Uber advertising on the MARTA app.

Nor is there any indication that Uber is providing partner cities with the type of data that would help officials gauge the service’s true mobility impact. In March, after working with a metro Portland sustainable transport group, Uber announced that one in four trips took place within a quarter-mile of a transit station. But without also saying how many cars cruised around empty or how far drivers traveled between fares, the company can’t support its claims that the program will “take cars off the road” or “reduce congestion.”

Uber claims to complement public transit, which would be great for urban mobility, but unless the company releases data such statements are hard to verify. (Uber)

That type of transparency is critical. If Uber does serve as a reliable transit feeder, for instance, cities might need less parking near major rail stations—freeing up prime space for transit-oriented development. That outcome could meaningfully reduce car-reliance over time, benefitting Uber and transit alike, but it requires a partnership that goes far beyond the smartphone screen.

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