In more than two dozen cities across the country, transit agencies have partnered with private-sector transportation providers, such as Lyft, Uber and Via, as well as local taxi companies and other mobility providers. These relationships have evolved as agencies seek to grow ridership, burnish their brand and remain relevant amid the pervasive growth of non-traditional, app-based transportation services.
The transit agencies run the spectrum from large to small, and the deals they have struck with transportation network companies like Uber or Lyft have taken a number of creative shapes. Some of those programs remain and are under further development, while others have been closed out for various reasons.
About a year ago the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) in Marin County, Calif., began a pilot program to offer subsidized Lyft rides to and from four commuter rail stations in the county. Riders pay the first $2 of their Lyft ride and TAM pays up to the next $5.
“The way this works is, if you’re headed to or from one of the four stations, go to the Lyft app and enter in the code: Get SMART,” said Derek McGill, planning manager for the Transportation Authority of Marin, a congestion-management agency and sales tax collector in Marin County.
“It’s been ongoing. And it’s been a very cost-effective service. We are looking at continuing this beyond our pilot period,” he said. TAM’s budget for the program is about $70,000 annually. In the first five months of service, roughly 1,000 riders took advantage of the discounted Lyft rides.
In 2016 Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART), serving Florida’s Tampa region, rolled out HyperLINK, a pilot program offering door-to-door service within set zones for $3 per ride using small van-type vehicles, linking riders to a bus station to access the broader HART system. By most measures, the project was a success, said Greg Brackin, director of operations support and ADA officer with HART. “For the last seven months we averaged about 5,200 trips a month. Our highest month was over 5,700 trips,” he said.
However, HART discontinued the HyperLINK service at the end of July this year, due to rising costs.
“When we went out for our new request for proposals (RFP) the pricing came in at a level that was not acceptable or sustainable,” said Brackin in an email. “We will continue to look for other alternatives to provide cutting-edge transit options to our citizens of Hillsborough County.”
Still in other cases, riders simply didn’t use the partnered TNC service enough to justify continuing it.
In Bend, Ore., Cascades East Transit (CET) tried out a pilot program last summer to ease parking shortages during popular summer activities and offered subsidized Uber rides on the first Friday of each month. It was not renewed this summer.
“I got a sense that it wasn't extensively used,” said Derek Hofbauer, outreach and engagement administrator for CET. “I'll plan to work on that Uber partnership this winter so we can take a closer look at any 2017 data and try it again next year when we have more staff capacity and can do a good job promoting it.”
A recent study by researchers at DePaul University found that partnerships between transit agencies and TNCs are on the rise. In fact, TNCs can often augment transit service in areas where bus or train service is lacking due to low population density and may not justify a fixed-route system.
“From our experience, this has been really effective in a low-density urban environment,” said McGill. “I would think that this model holds a lot of potential for that low-density suburban environment, and addressing some of those first-mile, last-mile challenges.”
Where TNC use makes less sense is in areas traditionally well-served by public transit: commutes into and out of dense urban areas. A 2018 study by the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University examined more than 3,000 fares for more than 600 trips in a four- to six-mile range in Chicago. The study found “TNCs tend to be relatively costly for those traveling to and from the downtown area.” In fact, “the average TNC trip costs more than $50 per hour,” according to the report.
The growth of services like Lyft or Uber illustrate, in part, areas where public transit has not been available or where there's been a decline in some level of service. The challenge now, say researchers, is for transit to pay special attention to first-mile, last-mile gaps and create bridges to public transit options.
“We feel strongly that transit agencies need to focus heavily on last-mile issues — which are often ‘last five-mile’ issues — using TNC partnerships, partially to prevent travelers from using ride-sharing for their entire trip rather than mixing modes,” said Joseph Schwieterman, professor in the School of Public Service and director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.
Officials in Centennial, Colo., experimented with establishing a connection to transit via Lyft. In 2016 the Denver suburb conducted a six-month pilot project known as Go Centennial to get commuters to a light rail station serving the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD). Transit users within a 3.75-square-mile area could take a free Lyft ride to the Dry Creek light rail station. Ridership at the Dry Creek station during the pilot project increased 11.6 percent, according to an audit of the project.
The city contracted with the non-profit Via Colorado, which is part of Via Mobility Services, to provide service that complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, the Go Centennial project was not continued, in part, due to the costs related to providing accessible service. The average per-trip cost of Lyft rides was $4.70, while Via Colorado's accessible service was $26.50 per hour, according to the audit.
“At the end of the day, we decided to end the pilot in its existing form because the accessible service accounted for 1.5 percent of trips — 19 total over the six-month pilot — but cost 75 percent of the pilot’s operating budget,” said Melanie Morgan, a member of the Innovation Team in the city of Centennial.
Costs associated with providing ADA accessible service have affected other projects as well.
“On our side, one of the issues we have is that the ride-hailing services tend not to address our ADA customers,” said Brackin of HART in Tampa. “As an authority, we have to ensure the rights of our customers to equal accessibility.”
The pilot in Centennial could have also benefited from serving a larger geographic area and running for more than six months, the audit concluded. This would have contributed to improved marketing efforts. Also, participants in the pilot had to download the Lyft app, create an account and enter credit card information, in the event riders traveled beyond the pilot’s service area.
All of these steps are examples of the kinds of opportunities transit agencies should take to streamline the process for an easier transition from one mode of transit to another, said Morgan.
“Overall, I think the one-app concept is intriguing, but it won’t make up for the bus not showing up on time or a lack of sidewalks to the bus stop,” she reflected. “That being said, a one-stop app could give transit agencies more control over user travel data and could be used as a tool to encourage TNCs or other providers to play by the rules.”
The growth of partnerships among public transit, ride-hailing, bike-sharing and other transportation providers shows clear opportunities, even if growing pains still exist.
“I think to the extent these partnerships help governments be more responsive to resident desires, provide easy ways to access transit, and test or prototype ideas before investing significant amounts of money, they should be encouraged,” said Morgan. “In addition, the more transit agencies are involved in the deployment of pilots, the more input they will have in the way these technologies roll out in their communities.”
Editor's note: A correction was made to clarify that Centennial, Colo., contracted with the non-profit Via Colorado, which is part of Via Mobility Services.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.