Transportation network companies, public transit eye steps toward integrated mobility

By Mary Ebeling

Transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber, Lyft, and Bridj continue to aggressively pursue the development of new markets, lately through partnerships with transit agencies eager to close that first and last mile gap. These partnerships promise to effectively increase the reach of transit by bringing riders outside of a transit catchment area directly to stops. However, if people begin to rely on TNCs for every leg of a trip, skipping the bus or train, transit could also be hurt. In an effort to maximize the potential benefits of working with TNCs, the American Public Transit Association has sought to identify opportunities for productive partnerships that can enhance the utility of transit, rather than diminish it.

New partnerships are emerging. An agreement, announced February 22 between Suncoast Transit Authority of Pinellas County, FL, and Uber highlights potential synergies between transit and TNCs. Pinellas County, home to Clearwater and St. Petersburg and marked by lower density land uses than the transit authority is able to effectively serve, wants to tap Uber and a local taxi company, United Taxi, to address the first and last mile challenges with Suncoast’s fixed route transit system. The transit authority is subsidizing Uber and United Taxi to provide rides to and from transit service within the service area but farther from a transit station than people will typically walk. The agency will pay for half the cost of the ride, up to $3.

Another innovative partnership, Ride KC, a one-year pilot launched by Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, Bridj, and Ford Motor Company, will provide on-demand micro-bus service. Like Pinellas County, Kansas City is not an exceptionally dense urban area and public transit struggles to provide cost-effective service. This effort differs from other TNC models in several significant ways. The transit authority embedded the service within the agency and is charging a fixed rate of $1.50 per trip, the same fare as the bus. Additionally, drivers are union employees of the transportation authority.

These partnerships illustrate the dynamic nature of the TNC sector and show the potential to benefit transit agencies and cities. These efforts could start to build more productive relationships between the TNCs and public transit. However, local governments also want to see additional coordination with the TNCs related to data sharing on trip origins and destinations. This information will benefit transit agencies in future service planning. Generally, TNCs have been reluctant to share this data, citing proprietary information and customer privacy. This problem may be fading somewhat: Bridj and the Kansas City Transit Authority plan to share data. And Uber and Lyft have begun to share data with cities in a few cases.

Bridj, Uber, and Lyft have joined APTA, suggesting the TNCs see it in their business interest to work with public transit. This includes transit agencies such as DART in Dallas, which is integrating TNC availability into their trip planning apps. At the end of the day, transit and TNCs like Uber share stated goals of making it possible for people to not have to drive everywhere.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.