New transit models: Laguna Beach and Uber partner for senior transportation services

By Mary Ebeling

In Laguna Beach, CA, bus ridership has experienced a steady decline in recent years, motivating elected officials to reduce main-line fixed-route bus headways from 30-minutes to 1-hour and eliminate service in some locations altogether. Starting in mid-June, the city will partner with Uber in a pilot program to fill the resulting gap in service. For residents aged 55 and over, a group that makes up about 50 percent of the city’s population of 22,000, the pilot will provide free rides for two months and low-cost rides after the pilot.

This program, a first of its kind, will be an interesting test of a new application of ride-hailing services. As Laguna Beach and Uber work through the logistics of the program, it will be important for the city to work with transit riders to evaluate how access to destinations is improved, maintained, or diminished. This evaluation should include transit riders of all ages; fixed-route service is being reduced, and the new service is designed to provide rides only for seniors.

In the past, a number of donation-driven services were available to seniors and people with disabilities to bridge the gap in transit service in Laguna Beach. Sally’s Fund supplements fixed-route service, specifically providing transportation services for low-income seniors. Sally’s Fund provided 685 one-way van trips and 810 one-way trips in its Prius in the first quarter of 2016. Adding the service through the Uber pilot may help Sally’s Fund and the other local services stretch their resources while simultaneously providing more access and mobility for Laguna Beach seniors.

While some cities have explored using ride-hailing services to fill first and last mile gaps in a transit system, the Uber pilot is envisioned as replacing regular transit service. The pilot offers free rides in town for the first two months. After two months, seniors will be reimbursed up to half the cost of a ride within Laguna Beach with a maximum of $5 dollars per ride. Trips to medical appointments up to 15 miles outside the city are also eligible. As the first program of its kind, a follow-up after the two-month pilot should provide useful information about whether the program can be replicated.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.