Transit futures in an Uber world

By Sam Sklar

Bus ridership in Philadelphia is down an average of 2.7 percent from 2014 to 2016 and down even further from a ridership high in 2012, according to a recent article on Philly.com. This decline is correlated with the rise of Uber and other ridesharing apps in the city that provide some riders with an alternative to taking the bus.

Transit agencies around the country are struggling with the Uber effect, where so-called “choice riders”—those who have the financial resources or scheduling flexibility to choose to ride transit or not—are turning away from buses and using transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft instead. Because these choice riders provide needed revenue for agencies, loss of significant numbers of riders can create both funding and service problems for the entire system.

A recent study from transit expert Bruce Schaller suggests that TNCs are drawing a significant portion of their customers from public transit, as well as from the traditional yellow cab industry. In addition to cannibalizing transit, the growth of TNCs contributes to additional congestion and additional vehicle miles traveled as people take trips they might not have taken otherwise and use cars instead of buses or subways. The study analyzed New York, which has an admittedly unique transportation network, mode split, and culture in the U.S. But the findings—that ridesharing companies would draw customers from public transit—seem reasonable for other cities as well.

This finding is at odds with Uber’s official stance on the matter. According to Uber spokesperson Craig Ewer, the company does not see itself as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority’s (SEPTA) competition. He also pointed out that Uber offers its own public benefits. It discourages car ownership, offers a safe ride for people who might otherwise drink and drive, gives people who work unusual hours a fast option to get home, provides alternatives for neighborhoods underserved by public transit, and can connect riders to transit hubs. And indeed, other transit agencies have partnered with TNCs to provide service for areas and times when transit is not available.

In Philadelphia, TNCs seem to be hurting rather than helping SEPTA. Overall, 70 of 120 routes have posted a ridership loss since 2014 and routes operating in dense Center City and in sparse Northeast Philadelphia were hardest hit.

Timeliness is important to retain riders, and this is another area where SEPTA is struggling while Uber is improving. According to data released by Uber, as of 2016, the TNC had an average dispatch time of three to five minutes in every corner of the city and in all of the bordering municipalities. But two of SEPTA’s most popular routes operate with an on-time rate in the low 70-percent range, and some routes are on time less than 70 percent of the time.

To combat this declining ridership SEPTA has commissioned a study to rework its routes to update ridership needs and geographic coverage. A short- and long-term goal of the study is to determine how to provide better customer service as TNCs continue to grow. At the same time, transit is a lifeline for many riders who do not own cars and cannot afford to use TNCs or cabs, and coverage of the entire city can be critical to assure that those riders can reach jobs, social services, and daily needs. But routes to far-flung areas may be sparsely used and therefore expensive to run.

The study’s findings will likely recommend balancing transit service along a spectrum of near-perfect coverage on one end and near-full ridership on the other. Based on resources at hand, equity goals, and revenue targets, SEPTA will have to make tough choices to provide the most service to the most people for as much revenue as possible.

Sam Sklar is a Program Associate at SSTI.