Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
As ride-hailing services intertwine with public transit, Pinellas County is making sure its poorest riders aren’t left out.
Underfunded and overburdened, public transit agencies aren’t wrong to view Uber and Lyft as threats to ridership statistics and fare revenue. But viewed as a complement, ride-hailing offers an answer to the so-called “first-and-last-mile” problem which transit users often face, especially in low-density cities. Some agencies are wholeheartedly embracing ride-hailing’s potential—and undoubtedly, the rest will have a lot to learn from them.
Pinellas County, Florida, is among those early adopters. In February, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority became the first agency in the country to subsidize Uber rides (along with those from United Taxi, a local taxi company) for any rider, at any time, to and from designated bus stations in neighborhoods with thin transit coverage. This pilot program wraps up in August.
Now the agency is expanding access to ride-hailing to low-income riders for whom a bus connection doesn’t always cut it. In a knock-on pilot program funded by a state grant, eligible riders participating in the county’s “Transit Disadvantaged” program can now access 23 free rides per month from Uber or United Taxi between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., from any starting point to any destination. (One free ride per month during daytime hours is also included).
These riders won’t need a data plan or even a smartphone to access their nighttime lifts; both Uber and United Taxi will be available through a telephone dispatch service, using either a landline or cell. (This appears to be the first place in the country where Uber is allowing its drivers to be summoned this way; Uber did not return request for comment.)
The goal of the broader Uber-subsidy pilot was to increase bus ridership, but this new program is targeted to reach Pinellas County’s large population of service workers. PSTA’s bus system serves traditional, 9-to-5 work hours. Many routes cease to operate after 10 p.m., which can strand hotel and restaurant workers whose shifts can end at all kinds of hours. With lower incomes, these workers tend not to own cars, and can’t always access the bank accounts and data plans necessary to use apps like Uber. “They don’t have a way home,” Christopher Cochran, a senior planner at the PSTA, tells CityLab. “The objective of this project”—which launches August 1—“is to show that there are alternative means to get these people around.”
Pinellas County isn’t the only municipality experimenting with intertwined public and private transportation services, which some planners refer to as “shared mobility.” To the east, Altamonte Springs, Florida, is piloting subsidies for all Uber rides, for anyone, anywhere within city limits. To great fanfare, Kansas City, Missouri, is testing a partnership with the “microtransit” provider Bridj, launched earlier this year. All of these programs aim to spread car-free mobility for riders at a lower cost (compared to, say, running more buses) for the agencies.
But PSTA’s new program appears to be the first to seriously address both income gaps and the “digital divide,” two pressing concerns as more private, tech-driven transportation services complement or even replace existing public ones. In an email to CityLab, the University of California-Berkeley mobility researcher Susan Shaheen applauds the county’s experiment as “an exciting development in shared mobility… [which] holds the promise to fill gaps in the transportation network (those unfilled or with limited service) and to scale well beyond the tech-savvy demographic and urban markets.” (Uber’s and Lyft’s new grocery-delivery partnership with Walmart is another example of that last bit.) Cochran says he also sees an “extraordinary opportunity” for paratransit users, who could perhaps be more conveniently served by ride-hailing subsidies, at great cost savings to the PSTA.
The model is not a sure bet, however. The aforementioned pilot programs are all in their first year. It remains to be seen how widely they are being used, and if ride-hailing subsidies truly are a sustainable, affordable proposition for transit agencies. And that’s putting aside some of Uber’s other worrisome aspects—its labor practices, the passenger safety issues, its apparent approach to disabled riders, the skirting of local regulations. Still, at PSTA, hopes are high. “We want to demonstrate a model that can be replicated throughout the state,” Cochran says. And, possibly, the country.