Bus ridership has plunged nationwide since ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft appeared, but about 30 cities have found ways to partner with the new companies to reach their transit goals in cheaper and easier ways.
It may be too early to say whether these partnerships can stop riders from fleeing public transit, but transportation experts say the partnerships offer a glimpse into transit's very-different future.
"Given the magnitude of the declines across the industry, millions and millions of trips per year, I don't think we're at a point yet where the partnerships—still limited to thirty or so examples that you all have found around the country—are yet reversing that," said Christopher Kopp of the transportation planning firm HTNB. "However, I think the potential here is that they're a way forward.”
Transit systems have long been burdened by the idea that they have to have a bus available to every taxpayer who's paying into the system, Kopp said. That has been an expensive burden particularly in rural areas where buses are hard to fill. There may be a way out thanks to the technologies that drive Uber and Lyft.
"One of the real opportunities here is the ability to get out from under the universal service mandate, which has always been challenging with 40-foot buses," Kopp said in a recent webinar sponsored by the Transportation Research Institute.
"We could use much smaller, much more dynamically dispatched vehicles to provide that universal coverage in areas where we can't fill a 40-foot bus. And in places where we can fill a 40-foot bus, think about how we can start filling a 60-foot bus every five minutes and do faster services through dedicated bus lanes and other things, and we end up at a very different looking transit system than we have today."
Kopp notes that premium transit services such as bus rapid transit and commuter rail have not suffered ridership declines as severe as those seen on traditional fixed-route bus services. So what if rideshare companies coordinated with premium transit?
Last month the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development released a study on the 30 agencies that are partnering with transportation-network companies like Uber and Lyft (pdf). They found the partnerships tend to group into five strategies:
1 Incentives That Encourage Connections
Twelve cities including Austin, Dayton and Tacoma have offered discounts for trips in certain areas. For example, Austin offers free trips on RideAustin, its non-profit rideshare company, within its Exposition Zone, which is home to many tech workers. Dayton subsidizes rural rides that connect to its transit hubs, and Detroit offers $5 fare discounts during off-peak hours on Lyft trips that connect to one of its major bus corridors.
"We will say there are a number of other cities that have similar types of partnerships," said Mallory Livingston, a graduate researcher with DePaul University's Chaddick Institute.
2 Apps That Encourage Connections
Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles and Portland have developed apps that display data from rideshare companies as well as transit agencies.
"Portland, Oregon was one of the first cities that integrated Lyft into its RideTap system, which gives riders real-time information about both transit options and TNC options," Livingston said.
Denver and Los Angeles took the idea further and partnered with Xerox to develop an app that includes other mobility options as well, such as biking and walking, and sorts them according to user preferences. Livingston called these apps the "next step" but noted they still fall short of a big step:
"We have not found a partnership that allows for payment on both a transit service and TNC service both on a single app," Livingston said.
3 Programs That Offset Parking
Bend, Boulder, Sacramento, and Summit, NJ, have all deployed ridesharing in some way to address parking shortages or reduce the demand for parking infrastructure. The first three cities have discontinued their programs, but Summit provides $2 Lyft trips to and from its commuter rail stations for residents who have already paid for a parking permit.
"The benefit of this program was that the community was able to avoid having to build new parking space."
4 Programs For Seniors And Paratransit
Boston, Las Vegas, and Royal Palm Beach, Florida deploy ridesharing companies to serve seniors and the disabled. In Boston, all seniors and travelers with disabilities receive a limited number of discounted rides per month. Riders pay the first $2 and any amount above $42; the MBTA covers the rest.
"It got traction faster than the existing paratransit service and prices are actually lower."
5 Programs That Indirectly Promote Transit
Cincinnatti, San Diego and Tacoma have devised clever programs that deploy ridesharing to address some of the reasons people may be reluctant to use transit. For example, San Diego's iCommute program offers transit commuters a rideshare or taxi home in case of illness or emergency. In a more behind-the-curtain example, Cincinatti's Mobility Lab shares data with Uber to improve the transit agency's long-term planning.
Joe Schwieterman, the director of the Chaddick Institute, cautions transit agencies that the risk of these programs is that they could be too popular.
"It’s pretty hard to thread the needle on these in the sense that if you’re too generous you may get more demand than you want," he said, "and of course there's a limited budget."
Typically, commuters are armed with discount codes from the transit agency, but the rideshare companies otherwise operate as usual:
"They don’t typically adjust the pricing; they keep the dynamic pricing model. They don’t allocate vehicles especially for you; you just join the network and you pay what you use. That really keeps them simple, which is a huge plus, but it does mean it can make it hard to forecast what the budget might be."