Should Maryland Paratransit Customers Use Uber? (Opinion)

Government should explore the impact disruptive companies could have in the public sector -- citizens deserve it.

by Mike Powell, Chief Innovation Officer, Maryland / September 10, 2014

Just a few years ago, if you needed a ride and couldn’t use mass transit, you hailed a cab. If you wanted to know what your home was worth, you hired an appraiser, or had a realtor run some comps. And if you wanted to avoid traffic, you turned on the car radio, waited 10 minutes, and prayed that “traffic on the eights” would mention your route (or, hopefully, not mention it). 

However, in 2014, consumers have much better options. When we need a ride, many of us use a ridesharing service like Uber or Lyft. If you want to know what your home is worth (or your neighbor’s home is worth), Zillow or Trulia can tell you in seconds. And as I drive home tonight, Waze will tell me the best route, and alert me to traffic issues in real time based on 10,000 other “Wazers” in the Baltimore area right now. 

Uber, Zillow, and Waze are just a few examples of the many disruptive companies that are making our personal lives a little easier. But can they also help government improve service and help reduce cost? I think they can.
 
My state of Maryland, like many states, provides paratransit “mobility” service for citizens with disabilities that prevent them from taking fixed-route mass transit (like light rail). After an intensive application process, if you need a ride, you need to schedule your trip via a call center (with an average five-minute hold time) by 5 p.m. the day before the trip. Ninety-one percent of the time, your driver shows up within a 30-minute window. The average trip is around eight miles and 36 minutes and costs roughly $54. The total cost of our mobility program is around $90 million in 2014, an increase of more than 50 percent in the past five years.
 
Compare the above scenario to Uber. With Uber, you can request your ride when you need it, and you don’t need to call and wait. They’re incentivized to pick you up promptly, and to provide good customer service, since without you, they’re not making any money. A quick check shows UberX will do a 10-mile, 35-minute trip for under $25, less than half the average cost of our mobility service.
 
To be clear, I’m not shilling for Uber, and I know there are other good ridesharing services, like Lyft, that are comparable. And I also know that private ridesharing may not be a viable alternative for all of our mobility customers. But Uber, Lyft and others seem to have a business model that suggests that there are more customer-friendly, efficient and cost-effective ways to transport our mobility customers.
 
Uber is just one example of a company that could help government reduce cost and improve service.

Maryland has hundreds of cameras on our highways so that we can monitor traffic and respond to problems. Let me be blunt: I don’t think the data collected from these cameras is any better (or more timely) than the crowdsourced data collected by Waze, specifically, by the “Wazers” in cars 100 yards ahead of me on the beltway that just came to a stop. And Zillow says they can estimate the value of a home within 5 percent, 50 percent of the time. That’s not perfect, but is it worse than our own manual assessments, conducted at considerable expense? (Yes, I assume our manual assessments are part of Zillow’s algorithm. I’d love to test their estimates, excluding the assessment data, against our assessments.)
These disruptive, innovative companies have had an extraordinary impact on our daily lives, and I think government owes it to the citizens we serve to explore whether they could have a similar impact in the public sector.
 

Michael Powell, chief innovation officer, MarylandMike Powell is the chief innovation officer of Maryland. The views expressed in this op-ed solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the state of Maryland.