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Is Uber Taking Sacramento, Calif., Transit's Ridership?

SacRT has been losing ridership almost annually for seven years – a 30 percent decline since 2010.

(TNS) -- The opening of the Golden 1 Center downtown last fall was billed as a rare opportunity for Sacramento Regional Transit to attract new riders. The agency stepped up its game, scrubbing trains, bolstering security and improving customer service.

By many accounts, it made a good impression. Yet new numbers show SacRT ridership on buses and trains has dropped 12 percent since last summer.

What happened?

The answer is simple. The transit agency’s ongoing challenges are bigger than an arena, and will require more work to address than an image upgrade.

While light rail trains did carry 1,700 fans on some arena nights, that amounts to only a small slice – about 2 percent – of daily transit travel, and those riders materialize only when the arena is hosting major events.

SacRT has been losing ridership almost annually for seven years – a 30 percent decline since 2010. American Public Transit Association data show that transit ridership is dwindling in most other cities as well.

Dan Sperling, founder and head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, who is writing a book about revolutions in transportation, says public transit in America is at a pivotal juncture.

“The story is of transit under great duress,” he said. “Transit is under great risk of shrinking. That is not in anyone’s interest.”

Nationally, transit experts point to many factors, including low gas prices that cause more people to get back in their cars. Others point out that poorly funded transit agencies, SacRT included, don’t provide sufficient service to be useful to many.

The most provocative possibility is what transit officials call the “Uber phenomenon.” App-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have arrived on the scene in cities across the country, siphoning riders from traditional, or “legacy,” transit.

Ride-hailing companies do not release ridership details, but an Uber spokesman told The Sacramento Bee earlier this year his company has 2,000 drivers signed up in Sacramento. The streets around Golden 1 Center during event nights tell a story. Cars with U stickers or pink mustache stickers on windows frequently roll through the area, picking up and dropping off fans.

Ride-hailing allows people to hit a button on their cellphone and be picked up within minutes right where they stand, and then be dropped off directly at their destination. The price is typically higher than a bus fare, but the convenience improvement is obvious.

Jim Corless, head of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments regional planning group, says transportation is dealing with a generational disruption.

“This disruption technology and the drop in ridership numbers means that every transit provider across the country has to rethink their business model,” he said. “They have to understand their competitive advantage.

“It may be what RT can do best is serve high-frequency, high-volume corridors. Nothing will ever beat a frequent, safe and reliable bus or train ... that can move volumes of people.”

While the ride-hailing phenomenon represents a challenge, transit experts say it also provides an inspiration and potential collaboration opportunities.

SacRT has been putting its toe in those waters. The agency teamed up on a test basis with Uber, Lyft and Yellow Cab this winter, offering discount vouchers for light rail riders to take ride-hail services to and from transit stations. Regional Transit officials say they do not have data yet for how that turned out.

Lyft spokeswoman Darcy Nenni also did not offer an analysis of how that went, but, in an email to The Bee, called it “a great learning experience for us and SacRT.”

“We hope to continue working with them on future endeavors,” Nenni said.

Devra Selenis, SacRT communications head, said she envisions a day when a single phone app will tell a person their best bet is to grab an Uber to a light rail station and allow the person to pay for both with a single tap on the phone.

Transit agencies say they realize they must become more tech-friendly in order to attract millennials and future generations of new riders.

SacRT recently added smartphone payment apps, and last week joined eight smaller local transit agencies in introducing “Connect Card,” an ATM-like universal card that riders can use at any of those agencies. Peter Tateishi, president of the Sacramento Metro Chamber, suggests transit agencies might be even bolder by considering merging more of their operations.

But transit officials acknowledge their challenges go far beyond Uber. SacRT’s existing bus route system is out of date. The agency has launched a bus route analysis that likely will result next year in the most dramatic route changes in the agency’s history.

“Travel patterns have shifted, but our bus routes haven’t shifted,” chief operating officer Mark Lonergan said. “That is why we talk about a clean slate.”

SacRT has begun meeting with business leaders on how to attract and retain young people who are less inclined to own cars, and are interested in using transit if it works for them, according to SacRT consultant Wendy Hoyt, who has been pushing SacRT to be more entrepreneurial.

The Metro Edge business group, made up of young professionals, conducted a survey that shows transportation issues are members’ No. 1 concern, up from No. 3 the previous year. That suggests there is an opportunity for SacRT to gain some footing.

Rachel Zillner, Metro Edge chair, uses light rail at times. She said she loves Uber, but considers the ride-hailing service “partially a Band-Aid for the transit connection that is not there yet.”

SacRT officials say the ridership slide is a catalyst for reinvention. The biggest drop in its ridership came in 2010, when the financially strapped agency cut service more than 20 percent. The agency took another ridership hit last year when it raised fares.

That points to another long-standing problem: the lack of sufficient, ongoing funding for public transit, SacRT officials said.

The agency had hoped to get an infusion of money last year from a countywide sales tax measure, but that proposal lost at the ballot box. SacRT and others in transportation circles locally are talking about trying again, especially if they can pass legislation to lower the required voter approval threshold from the current two-thirds.

Nailah Pope-Harden of the Capital Region Organizing Project, which works in disadvantaged neighborhoods, said that a lot of the riders SacRT lost over the last few years are poorer people who feel abandoned by the agency as it focuses on attracting millennials.

Agency officials say they realize their mission includes serving people who don’t have cars, but say they need new, higher-income riders to help fund service that can be used by everyone.

Even with new funds, progress will be incremental, they say.

“It may take some time for people to come back,” said SacRT executive Laura Ham. “It may happen gradually.”

©2017 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.