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Dallas Transit Embraces Uber, Lyft and Other Mobility Options

As part of a strategy to reverse declining ridership, the city is opening up its payment app to include a host of new features, including links to private ride-sharing services.

Dallas transit riders can do much more than purchase bus or train tickets with the region's GoPass app. Riders can now use it to book a ride with Uber or Lyft, and will soon be able to schedule other modes of getting around, such as renting a bike on one of the city’s five bike-share apps.

“The bottom line is DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) is looking at a very open platform,” said Tina Mörch-Pierre, assistant vice president for payment systems and statistical reporting at DART. “We want the customer to have the choice, whether it’s the brand — an Uber or Lyft — a certain type of taxi, whether it’s the cost, the time or the distance, we just want the customer to make that decision.”

DART, like many transit agencies, has expanded the capabilities of its mobile apps to include trip-planning and other features to make transit use easier. They have evolved well beyond simply a mobile-ticketing platform. In the case of DART, riders wanting to book a ride with Uber or Lyft can use the “More” icon at the bottom of the app, which pulls up the logos for the two hugely popular transportation network companies. Tapping on one of these icons redirects to the respective ride-hailing app.

“Just displaying that form of partnership gave our customers an opportunity to do some type of multi-modal trip planning, you could say,” said Mörch-Pierre.

In the near future, the DART app will also provide acces to on-demand, micro-transit services, where small transit vehicles offer rides in a door-to-door type of service similar to taxis or ride-hailing companies. DART began its micro-transit program in October 2017.

DART is also set to roll out “contactless cards” that can be loaded with funds. The card works like a reusable fare card, for those riders who may not have — or desire — access to a smartphone.

Early next year DART will explore an “open payment” system, which allows riders to use their mobile payment systems like Apple Pay or Google Pay to purchase tickets.

“We want to bring as many types of payment platforms in, to allow the customer to pay whichever way they choose,” said Mörch-Pierre.

The ultimate goal is to build in a payment system that allows riders to pay for the entire trip at one app location, regardless of the mode of travel, according to DART officials. Other transit agencies are also exploring this capability. The transit software company moovel is working with TriMet, the transit organization serving Portland, Ore., to create an “open search and payment platform,” said Nat Parker, CEO of moovel North America.

“The main obstacle is that every city has their own system and they don’t have an infrastructure yet for open standards,” Parker told Government Technology during an April 2018 interview. “To make this work, all stakeholders need to agree on data, technology and payment standards. There also needs to be collaboration in resources, expertise and data.”

An integrated payment plan is part of TriMet’s Mobility on Demand Sandbox project, which includes six main tasks. Overall, the project is about 75 percent complete, said Timothy Becker, a public information officer at TriMet. However, the integrated payment plan is still in development. 

In Dallas, the philosophy around technology and innovation is structured toward the goal of making transit use easier, more convenient and stress-free, say officials. That, and other efforts, like introducing on-demand, micro-transit and redesigning bus routes, are aimed at reversing a declining ridership trend in the Dallas region. From the 2015 to 2017 fiscal year DART ridership declined 6.4 percent, according to DART documents. 

“Our approach has been to look at the entire system, and look at where are all the touchpoints where we can improve rider-experience,” said Nicole Fontayne-Bárdowell, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at DART. (Until recently, Fontayne-Bárdowell was the agency’s chief information officer.)

The Dallas-Fort Worth metro region is a sprawling expanse of more than 7.2 million residents, the fourth largest in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. It includes areas of low population density that can present problems for transit planners concerned about deploying resources that may see little use. This is why partnerships with transportation network companies such as Lyft or Uber — often capable of closing first- and last-mile gaps — have not been discouraged.

“We have just general service gaps — places that we don’t go, but need to get people there. So consequently, we need to join up with these folks, and figure out how to make it work. That’s where the technology really comes in,” said Fontayne-Bárdowell.

“Customers don’t care how they get around. They want to get around, period,” said Morgan Lyons, vice president of external relations at DART. “They may start or end their trip on an Uber or a Lyft. We can take care of the big middle of that, cheaply and efficiently, with a bus or a train.”

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 Yreka, Calif.