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Denver Mass Transit Forms Partnership with Uber

For the first time, riders can now plan bus or rail trips on their Uber app. However, some transit experts caution against letting private-sector firms become the de facto mobility manager for a transit region.

The long-discussed marriage between public transit and ride-hailing seems to have made it to the altar in Denver.

Users of Uber in Denver now have a “transit” feature on their Uber apps, allowing them to plan trips as multimodal experiences that use both ride-hailing and a bus or train operated by the Regional Transportation District, which operates mass transit in metro Denver. This union is made possible by transit software company Masabi, which produces “mobility-as-a-service” solutions for its transit clients.

“Masabi is currently running a very successful mobile ticketing service for Denver RTD,” said James Gooch, head of marketing at Masabi, in an email. “This means Masabi can set up this new service, where they are enabling RTD tickets to be purchased and used within the Uber app, quickly, and give a consistent mobile ticketing experience to riders in Denver.”

Uber and RTD will soon allow for riders to pay for the transit portion of the trip within the Uber app, say Masabi officials.

This partnership between mass transit and ride-hailing — in a metro region serving more than 100 million transit riders annually — is being billed as the first of its kind in the United States. It comes as a number of other major transit agencies — including Los Angeles Metro; TriMet in Portland, Ore.; the Central Ohio Transit Authority, serving Columbus, Ohio; and other jurisdictions — are in the throes of trying to accomplish the same sort of transition. Public transit's aim is to remain a viable transportation provider in the wake of significant disruption brought on, in part, by private sector, app-based mobility platforms like Uber and Lyft, but also Jump Bikes, Lime e-scooters and others.

“Our customers want their trips to be as seamless as possible, and a collaboration like this one allows them to plan for travel from end to end, including additional first mile and last mile options,” said RTD CEO and General Manager Dave Genova, in a statement. “RTD is pleased to work with Uber as we present riders with additional, complementary options to most efficiently reach their destination.”

Industry watchers like the American Public Transportation Association have also taken note of efforts to form partnerships among public transit and ride-hailing companies, calling to mind a number of pilot projects aimed to close the first-mile, last-mile gaps in service.

However, the APTA has also stressed that public transit should remain the “mobility manager,” where multimodal trip-planning and payment services should take place.

And indeed, this is precisely the route L.A. Metro is taking with its reimagined Transit Access Pass (TAP) card, now known as TAPforce, an account-based platform that allows riders to move from one transit system to another across Los Angeles County. Officials at Metro have been in talks with Lyft and other mobility providers, Robin O’Hara, executive officer at L.A. Metro and director of technical systems for the TAP program, told Government Technology in December 2018.

“We’re talking about the convergence of new technologies and new business models that’s been disrupting the transportation space,” said Adrian Pearmine, national director for smart cities and connected vehicles with DKS Associates, during a November 2018 webinar hosted by Meeting of the Minds.

Central to that conversation, said Pearmine, will be who’s in charge of managing the relationships among different modes of transportation, regardless of whether those modes are public sector or private?

A question for cities to consider will be “around Uber owning the relationship with the customer for all of your trip planning, and eventually trip purchasing, keeping you on a single platform,” said Pearmine.

In the case of RTD’s relationship with Uber, the ride-hailing platform will be serving as the mobility manager. Officials with RTD could not immediately be reached for comment related to this particular aspect of the agreement with Uber.

“Uber shares many of the same goals as the cities we serve, and our team is committed to addressing the same challenges: reducing individual car ownership, expanding transportation access with more options and working with transit agencies to innovate,” said David Reich, Uber’s head of transit, in a statement.

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.