Colorado city teams with Uber app to summon on-demand transit

By Robbie Webber

In a first-of-its-kind partnership in the U.S., a city has partnered with Uber to use existing transit vehicles to provide on-demand service. Resident of Lone Tree, Colorado, can now use the Uber app to request a 12-passenger vehicle and driver provided by the city’s Link service. Other riders may be picked up along the way. The ride is free through the end of December anywhere in the city.

Other jurisdictions have experimented with Lyft or Uber partnerships to bridge the first- and last-mile gap to transit, or have subsidized transportation network companies instead of running transit services. And Amtrak is jumping on the partnership train with integration of Lyft into its app and promotional credits for Lyft rides. However, this is the first time a transportation network company has worked with a city to provide the technology to summon city-operated vehicles and drivers.

For nearly three years, the city of Lone Tree southeast of Denver has been operating a fixed-route shuttle line every ten minutes on a loop that connects a Denver RTD light rail station with most of the city’s major employers. The Lone Tree Link has been funded through a unique public-private partnership that includes some of those employers. This helps cover the cost and allows free rides to customers. But running four buses on a predictable loop and maintaining ten-minute headways also limits the reach of the service.

In order to provide better coverage to areas not on the fixed-route loop, increase accessibility, and balance use of the four Link vehicles, the city launched Lone Tree Link On Demand, which pairs Uber’s technology with the city’s vehicles and drivers.

“We wanted to extend the reach of the successful circulator,” said city manager Seth Hoffman. For the fixed-route service, “to get the headways we wanted to achieve, we had to keep the initial route narrow in scope. But that meant that it served employers but didn’t really serve retailers or residents. Putting it on demand makes it available to every address in the city.”

The genesis of Lone Tree’s partnership with Uber came about through the Smart Cities Collaborative, a collaboration of Transportation for America and Sidewalk Labs.

“Our inclusion in the Smart Cities Collaborative got us in the door with Uber,” said Jeff Holwell, the economic development director of Lone Tree, referring to the ‘Industry Day’ portion of the Collaborative. “That connected us with Uber’s Denver office, which is what made this happen.”

The city planned to develop their own technology for on-demand rides, but soon realized that pairing with Uber was far easier. The partnership with Uber—which is as much a pilot for the private company as it is for the city—has simplified tech issues. Users now scroll through Uber vehicle options to find the Link On Demand choice.

For the pilot, Holwell said that they removed one of the four buses from the fixed route and reassigned it to the on-demand service, allowing the city to better calibrate its service with the need.

“There was an immediate effect on day one,” Holwell said. “We’re already getting more ridership on that one vehicle than it was providing on the fixed route.”

In addition to providing better city-wide coverage, the city is also preparing for 2019 when an additional RTD light rail station is slated to open just south of the existing station, replicating a portion of the fixed route service. Shifting all of their resources to an on-demand service could be the roadmap for the future.

“Our big picture goal is to leverage the assets that we already have,” Hoffman said. “We can’t build additional lanes to fit more cars, so we’re going to try to use the lanes we have more efficiently. People are taking it to restaurants and taking it shopping, which helps out the local economy. As a medium dense suburban community, the density isn’t there in a way that would make a [larger] fixed route system work efficiently. This is a quicker way to deploy transit to our residents.”

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.