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Determining the Feasibility of Shared Mobility Services in Low-Income, Rural Areas

By looking at pilot programs across the country that seek to increase mobility options for low-income residents in rural areas, the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis worked to understand if these programs were feasible for more widespread adoption.

DAVIS, Calif. — While new mobility options have proliferated rapidly, their effects have not spread evenly across the country. And at a recent workshop called Pooling and Pricing: Harnessing the 3 Revolutions to Solve Congestion, Climate Change, and Social Equity, officials discussed how to further shift toward shared mobility.

Though transportation networking companies (TNC) like Lyft and Uber have entered more than 500 regions across the United States — providing significantly more flexibility for travelers, commuters and students alike — these new transportation models, “typically work well in efficient, dense corridors,” said senior researcher Caroline Rodier, of the Future Mobility Initiative at the University of California, Davis. “However in rural areas, transit distances are long and densities are low.”

In a study on the “opportunities for shared use mobility services in rural disadvantaged areas,” she and her team found that while the ridesourcing model may never be as widespread and self-sufficient as ridehailing in urban cores, there is potential to reduce transit costs and reinvest the savings in shared mobility. TNCs often will not go into these communities on their own and would look for public partners to share some of the risk. For those looking to contract with ridesharing companies, they ought to think about how they can motivate drivers and change the traditional fare structure to be more beneficial.

The study was funded by a Caltrans’ Sustainable Communities Grant and conducted in California's San Joaquin Valley, a largely agricultural region that covers vast swaths of central California. While the valley largely consists of low-population regions, it is unique in that more populated cities are also within its boundaries, including Fresno with its population of roughly 500,000, Stockton with a population of 290,000, and Modesto at population 200,000. The population used for the study, however, was drawn from census tracts that fit the rural and disadvantaged descriptions.

Suffering from low wages, painstaking manual labor and some of the worst air quality in the nation, residents often need reliable transportation to hospitals, but can't afford personally owning vehicles.

“Transit service is expensive and all too often infrequent, and hard to access by walking,” said Rodier. Other options include “dial-a-ride” services which must be booked in advance and can be too expensive for residents.

By looking at several pilots conducted elsewhere in the country that either serve low-income users or provide services during non-peak hours, Rodier studied the applicability of four options for shared-use mobility options:

  • Ridesourcing — summoning a vehicle for a single passenger ride. E.g., Uber, Lyft, Via
  • Ridesplitting — getting paired with a fellow passenger with a similar destination. E.g., Lyftline, Uberpool, Waze Carpool
  • Carsharing — short-term personal vehicle rental. E.g., Zipcar, Enterprise CarShare
  • Split carsharing — two or more people sharing a rental car.
In order to understand where opportunities lie, Rodier looked across the country to understand the feasibility of these new mobility programs. One initiative that began a year ago looked at how to serve riders when demand is low. A partnership between Florida's Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), Uber and a local taxi company began providing subsidized late-night rides for low-income users between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., when buses aren't available. The service expanded to include "Direct Connect," a service that allowed all passengers catch an Uber or taxi ride for just $1 to the bus stop, for the first or last mile of a trip.

“This is what the future of transportation in Pinellas County looks like,” said PSTA CEO Brad Miller in a release. “It’s multimodal, high-tech, and on-demand.”

Lessons for other areas with low ridership demand can be drawn from the PTSA public-private partnership. By specifying specific needs and providing public support for more transit options for rural areas, ridesourcing can work. Simply put, “traditional fare models don’t work,” in disadvantaged and rural areas, Rodier explained, but changing payment structures and incentives provide more leverage.

Another sometimes viable option is building out carsharing networks. In Needles, Calif., a partnership between the regional Victor Valley Transit Authority (VVTA) and Enterprise has shown that carsharing in rural areas is possible. The program offers micro-rentals as brief as one or two hours for licensed drivers ages 21 or older. To keep the program affordable and allow as many people access as possible, VVTA is offsetting other costs, like the usual membership fee and not requiring users to return vehicles with a full tank of gas.

One strategy that has been used by the Denver Housing Authority and Boulder Housing Partners has been to build carsharing stations around public housing complexes. By placing the vehicles in easy-to-access locations for lower-income residents, the programs should be viable option for trips to hospital appointments, grocery shopping or job interviews. Sacramento, Calif., also launched a similar program funded by the city, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

While introducing new mobility options is possible within the San Joaquin Valley and other low-income rural regions, partnerships between municipal agencies is often necessary to entice both companies and drivers to the area. For agencies looking to improve services for residents, Rodier suggests to first aim for the “low-hanging fruit.”

Start out with improving transit to town centers and build out from there. She also advises conducting a thorough analysis of what transit services are already operating and look at the suite of options available. There is not a one-size-fits-all service that can be introduced to solve mobility challenges. But through new shared services, municipalities can begin chipping away at the greater problem.

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.