Mick49 / Shutterstock.com

Increasingly, public transit is viewing mobility startups as partners, not competition.

It didn’t look like they were here to make friends.

When ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft burst onto the scene, they were talking about disrupting the decades-old mobility networks that preceded them. Their targets fell squarely on taxis, but public transit felt the heat too: would people stop hopping on buses if they could summon a ride with a tap of the finger? The success of these startups, not to mention car-sharing and bike-sharing, had transit observers wondering if we would soon see the death of public transportation.

One could be forgiven, then, for being surprised last month when the president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, the industry group that represents all those public transit agencies, announced that, “Together with companies like Lyft and Uber, we are integral to creating a dynamic multimodal lifestyle.” APTA had just unveiled a study showing that ride-sharing and car-sharing services can play a valuable role in complementing the fixed routes of traditional transit agencies. If Uber and Lyft had been gearing up for a Cold War with public transit, this was their detente.

Some cities have gone further, though, and launched outright partnerships with the upstart service providers. Atlanta, Dallas, and St. Petersburg, Florida, with their combination of urban density and sparser peripheries, are experimenting with ways to encourage customers to use ride apps to get to and from transit stations. In a few short years, Uber and Lyft transformed from existential threat to eligible suitor in the eyes of the transit agencies.

It’s not just PR

Uber and Lyft would love to claim credit for reducing car dependence and increasing transit access within a city. That’s why it was so notable to hear that message not from them, but from the transit agencies.

The APTA study confirmed with data what many users of shared mobility apps intuitively know: they don’t serve the same purpose as public transit. In particular, riders most frequently turn to ride-sourcing apps for social trips, rather than commuting. The peak demand in a week lands between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. on weekends, when transit has stopped running or operates infrequently enough to be inconvenient. The study also found that “supersharers,” who use some combination of ride-hailing, car-sharing, and bike-sharing for their trips, have half the car ownership rate of people whose only shared mobility is public transit.

When comparing people who use public transit with those who pair it with newer forms of shared mobility, the latter group drove less, was less likely to buy a new car, and was more likely to save money on transportation. The new mobility startups are linked to a lifestyle that’s less dependent on car ownership even compared to people who use public transit frequently. That means if public transit agencies want to help people get around without cars, they might want to encourage their riders to check out more of these auxiliary transit options.

There’s a lot of opportunity there to figure out ways to integrate the marketing and the payment systems so that you actually can solve transit agencies’ biggest problem, which is the first and last mile,” says Sharon Feigon, who led the study and runs the Shared-Use Mobility Center in Chicago. “That’s the part that a fixed transit system just can’t deal with.”

Two approaches: Marketing or money down

The geography of Dallas lends itself to a high number of park-and-ride users, who drive in from the suburbs, then ride light rail into the busy city center for work or nightlife. The problem is, they eventually have to ride back out to their car to get home, which can be problematic after happy hour. Dallas Area Rapid Transit isn’t equipped to get people from the outermost train stops to their homes, but Uber’s pretty good at that.“If they can compete so effectively, maybe that’s an area that we don’t need to be in,” DART spokesman Morgan Lyons tells CityLab. “I move people, they move people... but we don’t all have to go to the same place. Let’s try to find a way to work together.”

Based on the success of a trial run, DART incorporated ride-sharing into its mobile ticketing app last year. A passenger checking schedules for the train can now click through to Uber, Lyft, or Zipcar to get to the station (Lyons notes that the organization isn’t financially tied to any particular ridesharing app—when it comes to selecting partners, “We’re Switzerland,he says). Atlanta’s MARTA system offers a similar link-up to Uber.

As Eric Jaffe pointed out in CityLab last year, this isn’t really a breakthrough: the transit agencies aren’t offering new functionality, they’re just streamlining the link between them and the ride-hailing apps. For Lyons, though, forging a mental association between transit and the cool new modes of travel is a goal in its own right. “If we can help customers see the connection between ride-sharing services and public transportation and vice versa, everyone’s going to gain from that,” he says.

What’s going on in Florida takes the partnership a step further by putting money on the table. In St. Petersburg, just across the bay from Tampa, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has begun subsidizing half of an Uber ride to or from a transit station, up to $3. The six-month pilot, which started in February, also works with United Taxi, so riders who don’t have a smartphone or credit card can access the discount as well.

The goal is to appeal to two types of customers, says PSTA CEO Brad Miller: people who haven’t used public transit because they feel it’s inconvenient, and people who do use it but have to walk long or unsafe routes to get to the nearest stop. Miller reports growing usage of the pilot program in its first five weeks, but it’s too early for hard data on how it’s impacting ridership more broadly.

For PSTA, the Uber partnership also helps boost efficiency while addressing the last-mile problem. The $40,000 program for Uber and taxi rides comes after the agency closed down a neighborhood circulator bus route that cost $150,000 a year to maintain and had very few riders.

Keep the goal in mind

Whether or not the public accepts the new relationship remains to be seen. Given Uber’s contentious labor relations, no doubt some constituents will see this as a pact with the devil. Others might critique the government for shuffling off a core duty to private enterprise, where the mission isn’t to ensure equal access, but to make money.

Of course, that’s nothing new for urban transit, says Joseph Iacobucci, transit director at Sam Schwartz Engineering and a transit analyst for the APTA study. Before World War II, transit was the realm of private companies, and in many places it still is. New Orleans, Long Island, Phoenix, and San Diego, to name a few, contract out at least some of their public transit to private operators. The only new thing would be the names of the companies.

The key to successful partnerships with mobility companies, Iacobucci says, is for cities to be clear up front about what their social goals are. The point isn’t to line the pockets of Uber with the municipal seal of approval; it’s to achieve transportation equity, or decrease wait times, or reduce greenhouse gas emissions from getting around town. If bringing Uber and Lyft into the transit network results in more expensive travel for the poorest riders, that could nullify a push for more equal access.

One way to help that along would be if private transit companies shared more information with the cities to help transit planners. The companies have taken steps recently to share more with certain cities, but it’s not happening across the board. “That is still a barrier to feeling 100 percent comfortable with the relationship between shared mobility and transit agencies,” Iacobucci says. “The trend is in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go.”

Top image: Mick49 / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Julian Spector
Julian Spector

Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.

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