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How Uber And Lyft Can Fill Transit Gaps In Cities

Car-hailing apps were once thought to be the death of public transit. But now some transit agencies are embracing them as partners.

[Photo: Justin Sullivan/Staff/Getty Images]

Not long ago, it seemed that private mobility companies might swallow public transportation whole, starting with taxis before moving on to buses and trains as well. People had begun to discuss the death of transit amid evidence of lower public ridership in some cities, and the overwhelming success of Uber and others. Everything, it seemed, would be Uberized, privatized, and put on an algorithm.

But, more recently, transit authorities have begun embracing what Uber and Lyft can offer. They're realizing these companies can fill in gaps in their networks, create more integrated transportation systems, and perhaps even expand transit "equity" among lower-income groups. A report in March from the American Public Transportation Association, which represents agencies, showed that transit and private services can be largely "complementary." Uber, for example, can fill in between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. when buses and subways run infrequently, if at all.

[Photo: robertcicchetti/iStock]

A new report from TransitCenter, a New York foundation, offers further ideas for collaboration.

First, it says, agencies can partner with companies "to reinforce transit’s strengths." For example, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, in Florida, has a partnership with Uber and United Taxi, a taxi company, which serve to take over routes where traditional transit is uneconomic. PSTA offers a 50% fare subsidy—up to a maximum of $3—and, as a result, it has more money for viable routes.

Second, agencies can "leverage their assets" to support nontraditional services. BART, in the San Francisco area, leases parking spaces to car-share providers near its stations, and has offered more spaces if the providers can show they generate more ridership for BART than usual (at least 11 transit trips per week). (So far, according to the report, they haven't exceeded that goal.)

Third, agencies and companies can collaborate around data, making better mobile services for users. For example, Chicago’s Divvy bike share (operated by Motivate, a private firm) collaborates with Transit App, a trip-planning app firm in Montreal. Through data sharing, riders can register for Divvy from within a third-party app, pay for memberships, and unlock bicycles—no additional download required.

And, fourth, city agencies can be more open about procurement, looking beyond traditional suppliers, like big engineering firms, to smaller startups and tech companies. For example, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority now has an "unsolicited" policy whereby it accepts proposals from anyone, promising to consider all ideas within 90 days.

In a conference call about the report, co-author Zak Accuardi said the prospective conflict between public transit and private companies was a little overblown by the media. "The coverage says [they're] going to revolutionize public transportation systems. In reality, transit has some core advantages, but they can also work together," he says.

The report shows that transit and Uber can work together, for now at least. Whether we'll all be riding the subway in 50 years time, well, that's another question.

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