Partnering with ride-hailing companies to replace little-used bus routes in Miami could be one of the numerous changes that the COVID-19 crisis brings to public transit as users stay home to slow the virus.
Low ridership on late-night bus routes in Miami, brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, has sent riders to Uber and Lyft.
Miami-Dade Transit, which operates the city's public bus line Metrobus, has partnered with the ride-hailing companies to provide late-night transit service on nine routes from midnight to 5 a.m.
“The idea to eliminate the overnight bus routes and partner with Uber and Lyft, that’s a concept we had been discussing for quite some time for our lower ridership routes,” said Alice Bravo, director of transit in Miami-Dade County, during a recent webinar hosted by CoMotion, an organizer of various events to discuss transportation issues.
“We as a county, have great coverage, in terms of bus routes. But we have bus routes in areas with very low densities and resulting low ridership,” she explained. “And so we’ve always kind of grappled with the idea, could we use this type of voucher system to replace those low ridership routes and better allocate those resources.”
Miami is in the process of its Better Bus Project, a redesign of the region’s bus system to increase frequency on higher ridership corridors. This could take bus service away from some low-ridership areas. Partnerships with transportation network companies (TNCs) like this one, however, could help to fill these gaps.
The late night partnership with TNCs “is serving as a test,” said Bravo. “Can we use that and micro-mobility to help fill those gaps and make the bus network redesign more palatable for our elected officials.”
Dubbed the Go Nightly program, it allows transit riders to use TNCs for traveling up and down the affected bus corridors, allowing them to be picked up or dropped off within a quarter mile of the corridor. Destinations beyond this geofence could have the rider paying the full cost of the ride, according to a Metrobus press release.
The change in Miami comes as transit agencies across the nation have seen sharp declines in ridership since the COVID-19 crisis either furloughed large swaths of the U.S. workforce, or sent them to work from home. Concerns around “community spread” also had a number of transit agencies urging residents to not ride transit unless the trips were deemed essential.
“It’s very tough for transit directors to say, 'Don’t use transit. Stay home,'” said Bravo, as she recounted an 80 percent drop in ridership on Miami-Dade Transit’s network of buses and trains.
Other regional systems, like ISound Transit in Seattle, for example, have reported an 87 percent reduction in ridership, while Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco region is reporting a loss in ridership of up to 90 percent.
Left to be determined as regions and states look at a recovery road map following the coronavirus crisis is, how deep was the damage to transit, said John Siraut, an economist focusing on the overall social impacts of transit and the director of economics at Jacobs, a multi-disciplinary consulting firm in areas like transportation, water and the environment for the public and private sectors.
Large cities, like New York or Chicago, which are set up to be mostly transit dependent will probably largely bounce back, said Siraut in his comments during last week’s webinar.
“People don’t generally have an alternative to using the public transport network to getting to work. They either don’t have a car. … Or they don’t have a way to park the car, even if they do have one,” he remarked.
“I think the problem arises in the smaller cities and places like North America, where generally there is an alternative. You can drive more easily into your cities,” said Siraut, as he envisioned a world where commuters continue the practice of physical distancing.
If work-from-home becomes a more regular part of office life post-coronavirus, this could also translate to fewer commuters on public transit, further eroding ridership and possibly service levels, which can have the most significant effect on those riders who most need the service – riders with the fewest transportation options.
“We may see the people hardest hit will be the people with the fewest alternatives,” said Siraut.
So as officials ponder a future for transit, they mention the idea of accelerating technology upgrades like contactless payments, which reduce personal interactions, a move recently made by transit in Miami. While also taking steps to ensure improvements in frequency, quality, safety and cleanliness of the service, said Mohamed Mezghani, secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport in Brussels, in his comments during the webinar.
“We have to create a transit system that people want to use,” said Bravo. “We can’t force them to use transit. So it’s going to be based on their need. It needs to be efficient. And normally how we attract people to transit is we tell them, 'You can save time.'”