a photo of Uber's new app in Denver
Transit and ride-hailing: frenemies forever. Uber

The ride-hailing app launches its first integration with public transportation options in Denver.

In 2004, Denver looked bound to be the most advanced transit town west of the Mississippi. With a $4.7 billion bond measure passed, the city planned to add 122 miles of brand-new light rail, commuter trains, and rapid bus lines for RTD, the area’s mass transit agency.

But as these new system segments went live across the Mile High region, something went awry. Riders did not rush to fill the platforms. Quite the reverse: To date, transit ridership has actually declined and drivers have put more miles on the roads.

Now, an unlikely actor is making an effort to reverse that downward trend. On Thursday, starting in Denver, Uber will offer a transit option on its app, alongside its usual mix of ride-hail offerings. On-demand travelers who punch in their destination expecting to see UberPool and UberX options will now also see the time and cost comparison, plus point-to-point directions, for taking that same trip by bus or train. In one city, at least, the Uber app now more closely resembles Google Maps, with a major service bonus: It’s a multimodal navigation service, plus the actual means to get there.

“We want to help you feel confident on transit,” David Reich, Uber’s head of transit, said in an interview. Some travelers in Denver might not think to ride a public bus or train, he said; having their go-to ride-hailing app automatically populate with transit directions could help ease consumers into making a more wallet-friendly and/or planet-conscious choice. Eventually, that step could be easier. Through a previously announced partnership with the mobile ticketing software maker Masabi, travelers in Denver will eventually be able to purchase RTD fares inside the Uber app and use their phones to board.

Why Denver? It was the city’s enthusiasm, plus its own relatively advanced transit tech offerings, Reich said. Its existing mobile ticketing app was simpler to integrate with Uber’s than other cities that might have had to start from scratch, explained Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy and research. The city’s sprawling suburban character also mirrors a lot of other North American cities. “There are a lot of environments where this could work,” said Salzberg. The eventual plan is to integrate other transit systems into the app, too. Plus, Denver has the advantage of a newly built, spacious rail system with reliably on-time performance, which cannot be said for every city.

Uber’s latest transit partnership trails its chief competitor by a few months: Lyft integrated bus and rail directions into its app in Santa Monica last fall. But this announcement is no afterthought, given Uber’s pivot towards on-demand everything. Last spring, the world’s largest ride-hailing company announced its plans to integrate bikes, scooters, car-sharing, and eventually mobile transit ticketing into its app, in keeping with its stated efforts to reduce personal car ownership. For several years, Uber has also been working in place of low-capacity bus lines and paratransit in communities across North America, including in Boston, Florida, and Ontario, where public transport agencies have approached the app to provide subsidized rides.

Kari Watkins, a transportation scholar at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who studies how riders make decisions about their choice of modes, applauded the transit-oriented changes to Uber’s app. “I think the way that Uber is trying to see themselves as a mobility company is going to do a lot for improving travel behaviors and all of the negative ramifications of our transportation decisions,” she said, pointing to rising congestion and emissions in cities nationwide. “A lot of folks come to Uber because they’re used to being in an automobile. With this version of the app, they might think to take transit instead. And that’s great.”

On the other hand, the incentives could also end up pushing riders in the other direction, with those who might have planned on taking the bus electing to Uber instead for those trips when the time and cost comparison favors the private car. And there will be many such occasions. One of the reasons Denver transit likely hasn’t picked up traction is the system’s layout: The new hub-and-spoke rail system is good for pulling commuters in from suburbs, but it leaves trips in Denver’s urban core without enough connections. High-quality bus service to fill in the gaps is still on the way, as CityLab’s Andrew Small reported in 2017. And Denver’s gorgeous central rail hub, Union Station, is nearly a mile from downtown’s main employment centers.

For now, Salzberg said, the Uber app will only show trip comparisons between the two separate modes; it won’t show riders how to use ride-hailing as a “last-mile” connection between transit stations. That’s too bad, since that would seem like the most obvious pro-transit choice for a city where connections are far and few between.

Even with announcements like this, it would be hard to say seriously that Uber is an especially pro-transit company. After all, the rise of ride-hailing is one of the factors implicated in Denver’s recent transit slump. One published survey from 2018 found that 34 percent of Denver Uber and Lyft riders surveyed would have otherwise walked, biked, or taken transit in lieu of their car trip; nationally, a growing mountain of evidence indicates that the convenience and cost-competitiveness of these services is drawing down ridership on transit systems in most U.S. cities. Denver riders will be watched carefully to see if their new app makes any difference.

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