The Dry Creek light rail station platform in Centennial, Colorado. Flickr/Jeffrey Beall

Centennial thinks it can triple the ridership of its existing dial-a-ride service.

Dial-a-ride services have long been one of the most common answers to transit’s “first-and-last-mile” problem, especially in low-density areas underserved by buses and trains. Travelers who can’t walk to a station can schedule a van ride to transport them there or some other fixed point, at no or little cost to them.

These programs can be beneficial for seniors, disabled riders, and folks who otherwise can’t afford or choose not to drive. But dial-a-ride isn’t a particularly efficient system: Riders frequently must schedule pick-ups several days in advance, and agencies find the services expensive to run, because the ceiling is so low in terms of the number of riders they can attract. There are only so many bodies you can get onto a 10-seat bus over the course of a day.

But the success of ride-hailing apps is starting to change that equation. A handful of cities are testing out partnerships with these companies as a way to complement or replace older stop-gap solutions. Kansas City has gone all in on “micro-transit” buses in a partnership with Bridg. In Florida, Pinellas County has been piloting a Uber-based program that serves low-income transit riders traveling at late-night and early-morning hours, while Altamonte Springs has been picking up 25 percent of the tab for Uber rides to and from commuter rail stations.

Now, a community in Colorado is set to experiment with maybe the most tech-savvy version of this model yet. Beginning August 17, citizens within a service area will be able to summon free Lyft rides to and from the Dry Creek light-rail station that serves the city of Centennial, which sits southeast of Denver. Riders will have the option of putting in their request on the Lyft app or on Go Denver, a mobile platform developed by Xerox that integrates scheduling and payment information for transit and ride-hailing services around the metro area.

Service area of the Dry Creek First and Last Mile Pilot. (Centennial Innovation Team)

Planners predict that the costs of subsidizing Lyft connections during the six months of the Dry Creek First and Last Mile Pilot will be a lot cheaper for the city than the service they’re temporarily replacing. Centennial’s dial-a-ride program, provided by RTD, currently costs about $21 per one-way trip, requires advance sign-ups, and averages just a little over four boardings per hour. (For the sake of comparing results, the pilot will cover the same roughly two-square-mile range that the dial-a-ride program did; if it’s successful, that range might expand.) Daniel Hutton, the manager of the Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded “innovation team” based in Centennial that helped architect the Dry Creek pilot, anticipates that the new program will be able to reach at least three times the dial-a-ride’s current ridership, for the same cost.

“We’ve budgeted way over that, but that is our goal,” he says. “It would be huge for the region.”

It certainly would be huge for Centennial—apart from dial-a-ride, transit options are pretty limited in this sprawling suburb, which incorporated as a municipality just 15 years ago. There are the RTD light-rail stations that track along the I-25, ferrying riders north to Denver, and one bus line that runs east to west. A recent survey by the Denver South Transportation Management Association found that more than 90 percent of Centennial commuters had driven to work, according to Hutton. About 80 percent cited convenience and speed as the reason.

“Out here, people drive their own cars, like they used to ride their own horses,” he says. “Our question was, how do we make dial-a-ride as attractive as single-occupancy vehicles?”

The answer in the Centennial model is two-fold: First, it seeks to connect riders directly to the light-rail network, which provides regular, on-time service riders should be able to count on (and get excited about, at least more than buses). Second, it aims to make trip-planning tools simple and intuitive to use, and use on demand, for people accustomed to the familiar ease of driving.

In Centennial, simply releasing a digital platform that draws transportation connections between transit and ride-hailing for the user wouldn’t be sufficient—many potential riders need to learn how to use such a tool. About a third of Centennial’s population is over the age of 50, according to Mayor Cathy Noon. “We call Centennial the Silver Tsunami,” she says. “As people age, one thing to go is the ability to drive. That means losing your freedom to get to doctor’s appointments and to stay social with friends. We really want to help keep the people who started Centennial engaged in it.” So over the past few months, representatives from the city’s senior commission and the Innovation Team have run app-training workshops in libraries and recreation centers around the city.

A screenshot of a sample trip route in the Go Denver app. (Centennial Innovation Team)

For all the benefits that teaming up with Lyft could offer Centennial—which has built its reputation on other public-private partnerships—there are concerns, too. Liability and labor issues have plagued the ride-hailing industry from the get-go, and no clear resolution seems to be in sight. Made permanent, a private service replacing public transit could also be linked to loss of driver jobs, as well as drops in bus ridership and fare revenues. In a place like Centennial, it’s not hard to imagine seniors falling in love with the relatively low-cost convenience of ride-hailing apps and forgoing the transit connection entirely, even if it means they’ll need to pay for it. An attempt to capitalize on light-rail service could, in at least one way, backfire.

But as research on the burgeoning universe of “shared mobility” is beginning to reveal, it’s in low-density communities like Centennial that services like ride-hailing, car-sharing, and bike-sharing have the most potential to complement, rather than cannibalize, transit. “Shared mobility as a strategy holds the promise to fill gaps in the transportation network, and to scale well beyond the tech-savvy demographic and urban markets,” Susan Shaheen, the co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, told me earlier this spring.

Noon says she thinks the biggest challenge that the pilot might face is too much demand—it’s possible they’ll run out of funds before the six months is up. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Lyft connections stay free, if implemented permanently.

Could Centennial’s model be the one to beat for suburban communities? We’ll see in six months.

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