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The Sharing Economy: Ride Sharing Offers Transportation-Related Benefits

Some cities are conducting research and investing funds to study how ride-sharing models can help them become more innovative in terms of transportation.

Editor's note: This is part three of a four-part series in which Government Technology looks at some ways that local governments are using the sharing economy right now, and what it will take for cities to benefit from the full value of sharing resources in the public sector.

Uber, the popular ride-sharing service, has taken major cities by storm. Despite pushback by taxicab companies and regulators, ride sharing continues to grow in popularity and has led a small number of cities to figure out how to make the idea work in ways that directly benefit taxpayers.

The San Diego Association of Governments has proposed a research project around the idea of on-demand mobility services. Borrowing the idea of app-based ride sharing that companies like Uber and Lyft have popularized, the association wants to explore whether ride-sharing services could be expanded and developed to aid “increasingly more tech-savvy” seniors in getting around, according to Lyndon Dacuan, a content manager with Onvia, a business intelligence and analytics firm that serves the public sector.

The association wants to study the suitability of smartphone apps as the primary dispatching method and the willingness of seniors to actually use the services, based on comfort, safety and available payment options, such as a cashless method, Dacuan reported in a company blog post. “The association also wants to consider the types of trips people would take, how the method would apply to individuals with disabilities and incorporating the ride-sharing services into the existing specialized transportation network.”

Other cities, such as Fort Collins, Colo., and Winston-Salem, N.C., are conducting research and investing funds to study how ride-sharing models can help the cities become more innovative in terms of transportation. Ride sharing also has been touted for helping the environment while reducing congestion. According to a 2010 report from the University of California at Berkeley, every ride-sharing vehicle in operation can remove nine to 13 cars from the road.

Then there are some local governments that want to work directly with Uber. Macomb County, Mich., located north of Detroit, has turned to the ride-sharing company to provide door-to-door transportation for residents who receive a summons for jury duty.

The pilot project, launched in July, provides each juror with an Uber code that covers a $20 ride to the county courthouse. Jurors receive the code and a link to Uber’s account via email, and can use it to request a ride on the morning of jury duty. County Clerk Carmella Sabaugh said the service gives jurors a safe ride to the courthouse and helps them avoid congestion and the hassles of limited parking in the area.

“It also creates opportunities for county residents who are Uber drivers, so I think it’s good for the whole economy,” she said.

Local taxi companies expressed concern about competition from Uber, but none were willing to offer free rides. Since 2004, the county has offered jurors free bus tickets for rides to the courthouse, but public transportation is somewhat limited, according to Todd Schmitz, deputy county clerk, making the Uber option a potentially useful and convenient way for jurors to travel.

The juror ride-sharing program is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Depending on its success, the program could be continued beyond the trial period in Macomb County and expand into other counties in Michigan, Michael White, general manager for Uber Michigan, told the Detroit Free Press.

Bike Sharing Gets Green Light

While ride sharing has generated a good deal of debate, the concept of bike sharing has been accepted with open arms in most cities. Unlike Uber or Lyft, which compete with legacy taxicab companies, bike-sharing operations represent an entirely new market for urban mobility.

Bike sharing gives cities another transportation option and has been known to promote tourism. Most important, perhaps, they typically don’t cost cities much, with a large portion of the funding provided by federal and state grants, while operational costs are often borne by a private firm that manages the bikes and related equipment.

Yet the most successful bike-sharing programs are the ones that work closely with city government. Dallas is one of the most recent cities to launch a bike-sharing program. Working with Downtown Dallas Inc., the city plans to put 400 rentable bikes at 40 stations throughout downtown. While a little late to the game, Dallas hopes it gets it right by looking at what has worked and what hasn’t in other cities.

Placing bike stations near transit stops is one way to make them work. Public transit passengers can use bikes to ride to destinations outside the rail or bus corridor. Los Angeles, which expects to roll out a 1,100-bike-share program next year, plans to place many stations near its transit stops.

The next phase in the bike-sharing experience is to integrate bike rental payments with public transit fare systems as a way to get more people to use both. That’s the “Holy Grail,” Cara Ferrentino, a Philadelphia transportation official, told The Dallas Morning News.

Another example of ride-sharing services that involve local governments directly or indirectly is paratransit and ride options for disabled travelers. In July, Uber launched in Austin, Texas, UberACCESS, a pilot program that adds wheelchair-accessible vehicles to its on-demand transportation services. Similar programs operate in New York, Chicago, San Diego, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore.

Meanwhile, Seattle has passed an ordinance creating a 10-cent surcharge on every ride originating in the city with the several ride-sharing firms that operate there. The money will be used to defray the cost of owning and operating a wheelchair-accessible taxi, according to the Shared Use Mobility Center.

Less understood is the potential impact of the sharing economy on public transit. So-called microtransit operations have popped up in some of the nation’s largest cities. These operations have been described as smaller than running full-sized buses on fixed routes, yet they involve the use of large vans (and, in some cases, actual buses), usually equipped with Wi-Fi and a certain number of fixed pickup and drop-off locations, typically located between two key demographic areas.

Bridj, an on-demand bus service, first started operations May 2014 in Boston. This past spring, it began a trial program in Washington, D.C. Like Uber, Bridj uses an app to show riders where the service area is on a map and allows them to book a ride from selected pickup locations. And like Uber, Bridj doesn’t have a set route and schedules. Its on-demand bus service is unique. The company is offering up to 10 free rides during its trial run, but will charge $5 per ride during normal business operations, which are currently during the morning rush hour.

Advocates of microtransit say the service could help bridge the gap between someone’s home and the start of government-funded public transit, such as a bus, train or subway line — the so-called first-mile, last-mile problem that can keep many people from using public transportation. But in order for that to happen, microtransit companies would have to coordinate as well as collaborate with public transit. Bridj says it shares data with public transit officials in Boston and Washington, but it’s not entirely clear how far their collaboration goes. Bridj is also a member of the American Public Transportation Association.

Not all microtransit ventures have tried to partner with local governments, nor have they all succeeded. One notable flop has been Leap Transit, which launched in 2013 as a luxury bus alternative to public transit in San Francisco. Leap tried to take an aggressive approach to its role, criticizing the city’s transit system, yet requesting access to its bus stops. Ultimately, however, it was done in by the fact that it couldn’t make money on what it charged its riders (who were few in number anyway). That’s a problem any city running public transit is familiar with.