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Uber and Public Transit Are Trying to Get Along; Partnerships hold promise, but also raise questions
BY ERIC JAFFE“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. ...
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 other 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.
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.” ...
“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. ...
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. ...
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.”
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.
Reprinted with permission from CityLab, a blog from the Atlantic. Eric Jaffe is CityLab’s New York bureau chief.
“Commentary” features points of view from various sources to enhance readers’ broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.
APTA Addresses ‘Transformative Technologies’
The potential impact of new innovative technologies on public transportation is on APTA’s agenda as it starts its new fiscal year.
APTA’s strategic plan for 2015-2019 includes “technological innovation” as one of its five overarching goals. The association’s work “to lead and serve member efforts to evaluate, develop and adapt to emerging technologies” is already underway.
Several APTA committees are identifying ways for the industry to benefit from rapidly evolving trends related to mobility and transformative technologies, including innovations driven by both entrepreneurs and corporations, automated vehicles and services like Uber and Lyft.
In addition, APTA has scheduled numerous sessions at the 2015 Annual Meeting, Oct. 4-7 in San Francisco, focused on transformative technologies and new mobility services. For details, click here.