Ride sharing is the practice of sharing rides or transportation, especially by commuters, typically in the form of carpooling and vanpooling. Some agencies and organizations have adopted formal definitions clarifying the number of people, types of vehicles, and operating characteristics that qualify as ride sharing. Shared ride programs generally include all forms of carpooling and vanpooling. These can be informal arrangements or formal arrangements made through ride-matching services. Ride-matching services take several forms, such as committed vanpool groups or dynamic ride sharing programs that support real-time ride sharing through short-term instant arrangements enabled by GPS and wireless service. Ride matching programs are often supported by a local public transportation agency.
Bus ridership has plunged nationwide since ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft appeared, but about 30 cities have found ways to partner with the new companies to reach their transit goals in cheaper and easier ways. It may be too early to say whether these partnerships can stop riders from fleeing public transit, but transportation experts say the partnerships offer a glimpse into transit’s very-different future.
“Given the magnitude of the declines across the industry, millions and millions of trips per year, I don’t think we’re at a point yet where the partnerships—still limited to thirty or so examples that you all have found around the country—are yet reversing that,” said Christopher Kopp of the transportation planning firm HTNB. “However, I think the potential here is that they’re a way forward.”
Transit systems have long been burdened by the idea that they have to have a bus available to every taxpayer who’s paying into the system, Kopp said. That has been an expensive burden particularly in rural areas where buses are hard to fill. There may be a way out thanks to the technologies that drive Uber and Lyft.
“One of the real opportunities here is the ability to get out from under the universal service mandate, which has always been challenging with 40-foot buses,” Kopp said in a recent webinar sponsored by the Transportation Research Forum.
“We could use much smaller, much more dynamically dispatched vehicles to provide that universal coverage in areas where we can’t fill a 40-foot bus. And in places where we can fill a 40-foot bus, think about how we can start filling a 60-foot bus every five minutes and do faster services through dedicated bus lanes and other things, and we end up at a very different looking transit system than we have today.”
Kopp notes that premium transit services such as bus rapid transit and commuter rail have not suffered ridership declines as severe as those seen on traditional fixed-route bus services. So what if rideshare companies coordinated with premium transit?
Last month the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development released a study on the 30 agencies that are partnering with transportation-network companies like Uber and Lyft (pdf). They found the partnerships tend to group into five strategies:
1. Incentives That Encourage Connections
Twelve cities including Austin, Dayton and Tacoma have offered discounts for trips in certain areas. For example, Austin offers free trips on RideAustin, its non-profit rideshare company, within its Exposition Zone, which is home to many tech workers. Dayton subsidizes rural rides that connect to its transit hubs, and Detroit offers $5 fare discounts during off-peak hours on Lyft trips that connect to one of its major bus corridors. “We will say there are a number of other cities that have similar types of partnerships,” said Mallory Livingston, a graduate researcher with DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute.
2 Apps That Encourage Connections
Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles and Portland have developed apps that display data from rideshare companies as well as transit agencies. “Portland, Oregon was one of the first cities that integrated Lyft into its RideTap system, which gives riders real-time information about both transit options and TNC options,” Livingston said.
Denver and Los Angeles took the idea further and partnered with Xerox to develop an app that includes other mobility options as well, such as biking and walking, and sorts them according to user preferences. Livingston called these apps the “next step” but noted they still fall short of a big step: “We have not found a partnership that allows for payment on both a transit service and TNC service both on a single app,” Livingston said.
3 Programs That Offset Parking
Bend, Boulder, Sacramento, and Summit, NJ, have all deployed ridesharing in some way to address parking shortages or reduce the demand for parking infrastructure. The first three cities have discontinued their programs, but Summit provides $2 Lyft trips to and from its commuter rail stations for residents who have already paid for a parking permit. “The benefit of this program was that the community was able to avoid having to build new parking space.”
4 Programs For Seniors And Paratransit
Boston, Las Vegas, and Royal Palm Beach, Florida deploy ridesharing companies to serve seniors and the disabled. In Boston, all seniors and travelers with disabilities receive a limited number of discounted rides per month. Riders pay the first $2 and any amount above $42; the MBTA covers the rest. “It got traction faster than the existing paratransit service and prices are actually lower.”
5 Programs That Indirectly Promote Transit
Cincinnati, San Diego and Tacoma have devised clever programs that deploy ridesharing to address some of the reasons people may be reluctant to use transit. For example, San Diego’s iCommute program offers transit commuters a rideshare or taxi home in case of illness or emergency. In a more behind-the-curtain example, Cincinnati’s Mobility Lab shares data with Uber to improve the transit agency’s long-term planning.
Joe Schwieterman, the director of the Chaddick Institute, cautions transit agencies that the risk of these programs is that they could be too popular. “It’s pretty hard to thread the needle on these in the sense that if you’re too generous you may get more demand than you want,” he said, “and of course there’s a limited budget.”
Typically, commuters are armed with discount codes from the transit agency, but the rideshare companies otherwise operate as usual: “They don’t typically adjust the pricing; they keep the dynamic pricing model. They don’t allocate vehicles especially for you; you just join the network and you pay what you use. That really keeps them simple, which is a huge plus, but it does mean it can make it hard to forecast what the budget might be.”
No doubt, strategies to build synergy between TNCs and transit operators will evolve in the months ahead. The analysis presented in this report suggests four trends are likely to reshape public agencies’ partnerships with TNCs in the coming years:
- More large transit agencies will likely roll out partnerships to test the waters on TNC collaborations. Presently, only 11 of the 50 largest transit agencies in the United States (as measured by unlinked trips in 2017), or their parent organizations, have developed partnerships that directly promote synergy with ridesharing (see Table on page 12). Only two of the largest 10, Boston’s MBTA and Philadelphia’s SEPTA, provide direct financial support for riders. It seems probable that more major transit systems, such as those in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, will emulate some of the actions of these two. SEPTA’s program providing discounted rides to certain commuter rail stations may become a prototype for other large-city systems. Chicago is presently the largest metropolitan region in the United States without any partnerships that meet criteria for inclusion in this report, while metropolitan New York has only the Summit, NJ partnership.
- More formal evaluations of programs will need to be carried out. The lack of analysis of the performance of most partnerships described above stands as a significant barrier to the development of new ones. Practitioners have little hard evidence at their disposal about the extent to which these programs are achieving their goals – despite the fact that most are akin to controlled experiments that lend themselves to statistical evaluation. The audit of the program in Centennial, CO (conducted by Fehr & Peer) is an exception, offering extensive information on the costs and benefits. Similarly, Innisfil, Ontario, Canada has provided publicly-available data on the first phase of its partnership with Uber, and detailed how such data was utilized to determine revisions for its second phase.Insights for large-city systems may also be spurred by the “Mobility on Demand On-Ramp Program,” a Federal Transit Administration initiative supported by the Shared Use Mobility Center, which provides technical assistance to public transit agencies implementing new strategies in Austin, TX, Baltimore, MD, Indianapolis, IN, Ithaca, NY, Memphis, TN, and San Francisco, CA. The projects range from exploring microtransit opportunities to increasing equitable transportation access. This effort stems from the Federal Transit Administration’s MOD Sandbox Program, which helps cities leverage new mobility tools and technologies.
- More cities will explore options for improving paratransit service through ridesharing partnerships. Given the chronic shortages of funds for paratransit, this is likely a fruitful area for collaboration. Several cities – including Dallas, TX36 and Portland, OR37 – are reportedly already pursuing partnerships for this type of service. Several counties in metropolitan Chicago are also considering this option.
- The integration of fares for trips involving transit/TNC connections is a logical next step in the development of partnerships. Currently, only a few partnerships are supported by apps that allow travelers to see both public transit and TNC routing options through a single search mechanism. However, we anticipate the number of cities that develop such tools will grow. Furthermore, we expect public bodies will also pursue avenues to incorporate payment for both modes on a single app. Developing a system that allows for payment for both a public transit ride and an Uber ride with a single click will be a complex endeavor. Standing in the way of this type of service are sensitive issues such as protecting private information, including the origin and destinations of particular travelers. Nevertheless, incorporating trip planning options and payments would lower the search and transaction costs associated with mixing modes of travels. As the examples in the report show, the next several years will likely be fruitful times for more experimentation with partnerships between units of governments and TNCs.
Transit agencies and rideshare providers often share the smartphone as a user interface, making app integration an obvious, low-cost choice for partnership. Atlanta, GA links its transit app, MARTA on the Go, to the Uber app, so commuters can easily hail a ride when they reach their final public transit destinations. The integration helps bridge the “last mile,” when one’s final destination is too far from a public transit node to comfortably walk. Moreover, rideshare-transit app integration facilitates late-night travel when service is reduced or interrupted. According to Uber, hundreds of thousands of rideshare trips start or end their journeys at MARTA stations each year, meaning app integration (coupled with a promotional discount) simply eases the way users are already employing rideshare services to complement transit. Dallas, TX has embarked on a similar collaboration with Lyft.
Summit, NJ has taken transit-rideshare integration a step further by undertaking a six-month, 100-person pilot program in which the city is subsidizing Uber rides to and from its transit station in order to reduce parking demand. By the city’s logic, the cost of subsidizing Uber rides will be competitive with the price of building new parking spaces to accommodate the vehicles left by commuters near the station each day. At the moment, the pilot program seems to make financial sense. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, constructing a multi-story garage to accommodate Summit’s current parking deficit would cost approximately $10 million, plus the opportunity cost of other resources that could be located on that land. Uber subsidies, on the other hand, are projected by the city to cost $167,000 a year for the 100 commuters in the pilot program. Pending the results of the six-month trial, the city will decide whether to scale up or down the number of rides they subsidize.
Altamonte Springs, FL, has taken a more general approach to subsidizing rideshare, promising to contribute twenty percent of the cost of every Uber trip taken within the city, with even greater subsidies for trips starting or ending at the city’s SunRail station. Unlike the pilot program in Summit, which is tasked with reducing parking congestion, Altamonte Springs $500,000 dollar, year-long program aims to assess how ridesharing can impact the city’s overall mobility needs.
INTEGRATING PARATRANSIT AND RIDESHARE
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the average cost of a paratransit trip in 2010 was $29.30, three times the cost of providing bus and subway rides. In September 2016, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s paratransit service, The Ride, announced that it would subsidize up to $13 off paratransit trips provided by Lyft and Uber. Each ride would reportedly be 70% cheaper for the city than existing services. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has plans for a similar integration of rideshare into its paratransit program, anticipating savings of $6 million annually. Beyond the major benefit of significantly reducing cost, rideshare also offers the possibility of faster service. Rather than scheduling their trips days in advance, paratransit riders could instead meet their mobility needs as they arise. A main concern with this plan, however, is that many if not most rideshare contractors lack the credentials to transport disabled individuals, as well as the training to assist people with certain disabilities. Moreover, many cars employed for rideshare aren’t wheelchair accessible.
In addition to these major trends, a number of other collaboration are being piloted: WageWorks now allows users to pay for UberPool rides using pretax dollars in New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Denver, Atlanta, Miami, and New Jersey; and cities are using rideshare services to accommodate increased transit demand during major events like St. Patrick’s Day in Dallas, TX, as well as Comic-Con and the MLB All-Star Game in San Diego, CA. In the private sector, landlords are extending rideshare credits to tenants who are willing to forego parking spaces in their buildings. And of course, there’s also the proliferation of cities allowing rideshare companies to use their streets as testing grounds for new autonomous vehicle programs.
Since many of these programs are still in their infancy, it’s difficult to know how effective they will be at reducing transit costs and improving service for commuters in the long run. However, the overall trend is unmistakable: transit agencies are increasingly becoming mobility agencies, agnostic in their approach to ensuring commuters can effectively transfer between a number of modes of transportation. A major driving force behind this evolution is the data-sharing enabled through the kinds of partnerships outlined above, which are empowering policymakers to holistically assess commuting patterns, diagnose shortcomings in the current menu of travel options, and measure the effectiveness of various solutions.
WYATT CMAR is a Research Assistant and Writer for the Project on Municipal Innovation Advisory Group. Before joining the Ash Center, Wyatt worked as Business Development and Research Manager at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York City-based art and architecture studio. Prior to that, he was Program Administrator at the Neighborhood Preservation Center, a nonprofit incubator and resource center located in New York City. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Metropolitan Studies from New York University.
SUMMARY OF HUMAN SERVICE STAKEHOLDER RECOMMENDATIONS
Many of the agency stakeholders expressed similar comments regarding needs and opportunities, often with particular reference to their agency clients or needs. However, a general list of human
service transportation needs can be compiled from this input, and this has here been categorized in terms of service needs, coordination needs, and funding needs:
- Service Needs:
- Provide public transit and/or coordinated services in those areas that have no service
- Provide more services to address the growing demand for transportation from an aging population
- Provide regional services or coordinated transfers between systems that would support regional trips
- Provide services that can support employment trips—in terms of days of the week and span of service
- Ensure that existing services have adequate vehicle replacements
- Coordination Needs:
- Provide one-call/one-click information systems covering all services
- Provide travel training to encourage different groups to use available transit services
- Create a state-level coordinating council to support program coordination
- Include more coordination of NEMT programs to allow for more ride-sharing and to better share
- the costs of demand-response trips for dual-eligible clients (particularly ADA and NEMT)
- Funding Needs:
- Provide additional funding for public and coordinated transportation
- Have a dedicated source of funding for transit and human service transportation.
Minnesota Council on Transportation Access (2018)
MCOTA 2017 Activities and Accomplishments ……………………………………………………………………………….10
Economic benefits of Minnesota volunteer driver programs…………………………………………………………………10
Volunteer driver program issues………………………………………………………………………………………………………..11
Public-private partnerships in transit………………………………………………………………………………………………….13
Regional Transportation Coordinating Councils development……………………………………………………………….14
Olmstead Plan Progress Updates……………………………………………………………………………………………………….18
Other MCOTA Activities ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………18
MCOTA Priorities for 2018………………………………………………………………………………………………………….24
RTCC organizing and implementation…………………………………………………………………………………………………24
Volunteer driver insurance and reimbursement ………………………………………………………………………………….24
Volunteer driver program forum ……………………………………………………………………………………………………….25
Research project on youth employment transportation ……………………………………………………………………….25
Continued stakeholder communications…………………………………………………………………………………………….25
Appendix A: MCOTA Members during 2017 …………………………………………………………………………………..27
In FY 2016, the Minnesota Council on Transportation Access (MCOTA) requested a study of Volunteer Programs in Minnesota, with the objectives of documenting the organizations that use volunteer drivers to help meet the transportation needs of their clients, how they organize and fund their volunteer driver programs, and the challenges these organizations face in continuing to provide these services with volunteer drivers, including issues with insurance coverage. Once these were documented, MCOTA requested recommendations regarding which of the identified barriers would be most productively addressed, and what methods would help providers address these barriers.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs sought to meet these objectives through a survey of providers that use volunteer drivers in Minnesota and review of current regulations, including insurance. This report covers the background and need for this study in more detail, the survey method followed, a discussion of the results and conclusions from the survey data, and recommendations for how the identified barriers might be addressed. To conduct this research, the research team examined the relevant laws and regulations covering volunteer drivers in Minnesota, and also conducted a survey of 230 providers, from which they were able to identify 188 valid e-mail addresses. This survey yielded 45 responses, for a response rate of about 24%. Of these 45 responses, 10 were from the Twin Cities metropolitan area, and the rest coming from Greater Minnesota
The research revealed the following findings:
- The flexibility and lower cost of volunteer drivers create a valuable and useful service that could not be replicated, if at all, except at higher rates, which could create significant hardships for providers to meet their core mission;
- Demographic and regulatory changes are combining to threaten the continued viability of these services; and
- While the demographic issues are not easily addressed, it appears the regulatory issues, especially related to insurance, could be improved to promote rather than discourage volunteers from driving.
To address these issues, the researchers recommend that Minnesota’s laws and regulations be amended such that they improve the clarification between volunteer drivers and transportation network subcontractors / employees, and that additional incentives, such as reimbursement for “no-load” miles be offered to attract more volunteer drivers.
A. Improve the clarification between volunteer drivers and transportation network subcontractors / employees
The major opportunity for removing a barrier to recruiting volunteer drivers is changing chapter 65B.472 to better clarify between the subcontractors and employees of ridesharing companies, which it intends to regulate, and volunteer drivers, which it should not. Two ways to address this are by (1) reimbursement rate and (2) trip purpose. In the former case, specifying a particular IRS mileage reimbursement rate as the ceiling for volunteer drivers would allow a bright line, where anyone receiving a per-mile rate above this would be covered by 65B.472, and those below would be considered volunteers. In the latter, the statute could exempt certain trip types, such as medical trips, from the higher insurance requirements, thus providing an opportunity to increase the number of providers eligible to provide these higher-priority trips. Combinations of these two (e.g., where only certain trip types at certain reimbursement rates qualify as volunteer, or where certain trip types are prioritized such that they must first be offered to volunteer drivers at lower reimbursement rates before being offered to ridesharing providers) are possible.
B. Consider allowing additional incentives for volunteer drivers, such as reimbursement for no-load miles.
The second recommendation would further enhance the attractiveness of being a volunteer driver, by allowing them to claim “no-load” miles as 3 respondents indicated they are already doing. This provides the volunteer driver with some compensation for their entire trip, but as the per-mile compensation rate would remain below the stated threshold, they would retain their classification as volunteers. This change may require a specific note that “no-load” miles must be reimbursed as miles, rather than having this amount rolled up with the trip miles with the client, to make the lower per-mile rate clear, and/or the number of “no-load” miles could be capped as well, to insure volunteer drivers are not accumulating “no-load” miles excessively. Finally, it should be noted that this change may require reviewing other regulations, depending on trip type, to determine if claiming “no-load” miles is allowable under those regulations as well.
Uber wants to take over public transit, one small town at a time
By Spencer Woodman
My first morning in Altamonte Springs, Florida, I was faced with a dilemma: how to travel the two miles from my hotel to city hall without a car. Walking would take nearly an hour in the sweltering June heat. Taking a bus would entail waiting up to a half hour at a stop with little shelter from the forecasted thunderstorms, followed by a looping detour to the local mall. The trip could potentially take longer than walking.
I was on my way to meet Frank Martz, Altamonte’s city manager. For nearly two decades, Martz had fought to overhaul Altamonte’s transit system with a fleet of demand-responsive public busses. He called the plan FlexBus, and it would use custom-designed software to optimize routes for vehicles that riders would order from kiosks or even desktop computers. Martz saw FlexBus as the key to transforming Altamonte, a loose agglomeration of palm tree-lined strip malls and culs-de-sac a few miles north of Orlando, into a thriving and walkable destination.
Despite Martz’s persistent lobbying, bureaucratic delays and disagreements with the regional transit authority stalled the project for years, Martz says. Finally last October, the Federal Transit Administration withdrew millions in vital funding. FlexBus was dead.
But the transit landscape had changed since Martz began his quest. In the years before FlexBus was founded, some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent companies had begun offering on-demand transportation reminiscent of Martz’s vision. So just weeks after burying FlexBus, Martz called Uber. His inquiry was blunt: did the company want to make Altamonte the world’s first public transportation system based on ride-share technology?
Martz’s proposal would make the suburb of Altamonte an unlikely test bed for one future of public transit. It would also raise questions about whether such a future can serve everyone equally, and force Martz to navigate between the transparency of public office and the demands of a multibillion dollar company with a penchant for secrecy.
By the time Martz called Uber, less radical versions of his proposal had begun proliferating across the county. As Bloomberg noted last month, both Uber and Lyft have been striking agreements with transit agencies, mostly for so-called “first-last mile” programs — meant to shuttle commuters to bus or train stations. Since last year, Uber has scored public transit agreements with San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, among other cities. Uber and Lyft have also been edging into niche public transportation services, like transit for disabled people or low-income residents who need rides to work or the grocery store. Last month officials in Washington, DC proposed having Uber respond to some 911 calls for ambulances.
Even Google’s Alphabet, through its Sidewalk Labs program, has joined the transit bonanza. The company recently offered to overhaul transit in Columbus, Ohio with a system that sets parking prices based on demand and funnels low-income commuters into subsidized ride-share vehicles.
These companies are arriving at an opportune time for cities, many of which are struggling just to fund existing transit service, much less expand it to meet the needs of growing numbers of urban commuters. Both Uber and Lyft tell The Verge that the past year has seen a surge in public officials interested in giving the companies taxpayer dollars for public transit contracts. For the companies, it’s an appealing new way to establish themselves as vital infrastructure, especially in low-density communities like Altamonte where running traditional mass transit can be expensive. Given the pace at which these partnerships are coming together, it’s possible to imagine ride-hail companies taking on the role of all-encompassing, smartphone-driven public transit providers, one town at a time.
But for some transit advocates, the embrace of Uber and its competitors risks undermining civic ideals of accessibility and transparency. In Altamonte, there are already signs that these concerns could be warranted. The pilot program is unusable for people without a smartphone or credit card, and the company attempted to have the city sign an unusually far-reaching nondisclosure agreement.
Ultimately, critics worry that if these programs succeed, they could pluck the affluent commuters who wield real political influence off trains and busses, leading to a crisis of declining ridership and decreasing clout for traditional public transportation.
Uber has so far been pitching itself as a supplement to existing transit programs rather than a replacement. But in June of last year, for the company’s five-year anniversary, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick envisioned a future where increasing efficiency would make Uber cost-competitive not just with owning a car, but with traditional mass transit. When drivers drop off a customer only to pick up another, chained together in a “perpetual trip,” Kalanick said, “not only is it much less expensive than taking a cab or owning a car, it has the potential to be as affordable as taking a subway, or a bus, or other means of transportation. And that’s what we believe is the real game-changer. Those are the things we’ll be working on in years to come.”
With the help of public subsidies, that future is coming fast. The speed with which Uber has entered the public transit sector has stunned industry activists. “It’s happening very quickly,” says Lawrence Hanley, the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. “It’s like a tsunami.”
I didn’t have an hour to spare getting across town to meet Martz, so government Uber was the obvious choice. Opening the app, I noticed a new option had appeared next to UberX: an “Altamonte” car. Upon being scooped up by an off-duty drug counselor in a sleek Chrysler, it became clear that the app had so seamlessly incorporated the municipal transit program as to, aside from the car name, wholly hide its civic underpinning. It was Uber as usual in every way, but cheaper. Indeed, most of the Uber drivers who shuttled me around town that week told me they had no idea their rides were being subsidized by the government.
It wasn’t until I arrived at city hall that I fully understood the aggressively suburban layout of Altamonte. I had imagined Martz’s office as being inside a stately administrative building somewhere central, but though it’s technically a municipality, Altamonte has nothing resembling a center. Its low-slung city hall sits anonymously amid a cluster of one-story gray-brick buildings off the six-lane State Road 436, largely hidden by the Altamonte Executive Center strip mall.
Martz led me into his conference room and took a seat in front of a floor-to-ceiling city map, which, because of Altamonte’s curlicue suburban street scheme, could double as patterned wallpaper. He wasted little time in noting, with a prideful note of irony, that the building that once housed the regional commuter rail headquarters was where he had conceived the first fully smartphone-driven public transit network.
A former minor league baseball player, Martz has a sturdy frame and speaks with prim efficiency, but he slips into exuberance when discussing his long-delayed success in bringing demand-responsive public transit to Altamonte.
“We recognized this much earlier than most, that the issue of transit usage was not about infrastructure,” Martz said. “It’s about convenience and control.”
When Martz dialed Uber in November, the company jumped at his inquiry. Within two weeks of the call, an Uber manager flew from Washington, DC to Orlando to meet with him, he says. After two months of discussions, Uber sent Martz a chart laying out the possible future of their partnership. At a subsidy rate of 25 percent — and assuming the ridership would grow annually by 100 percent — Uber would receive roughly a million dollars per year from the city. A potential indication of Uber’s aspirations, the chart also included a scenario in which Altamonte would pay Uber a full 100 percent subsidy, putting the town on the hook for up to nearly $7 million in ride-share funding over a two-year span.
(Uber also sent Martz a document instructing that its logo “should be treated with respect” and laying out in anxious detail what that entails. In promoting the program, Martz was forbidden from placing the Uber logo “anywhere that could degrade our brand,” including on doormats or anywhere else where it could be trodden on; on things like napkins or paper plates that would be quickly thrown away; on dartboards or urinals; on food, which, the document explains, will be sliced, broken, eaten, and is associated with the feces it will later become; or on underwear, condoms, “or anything else that would link Uber and sexual situations.”)
Martz settled on a 20 percent subsidy for any trip within Altamonte, and 25 percent for rides to and from the city’s commuter rail station. Martz foresees the yearlong pilot costing taxpayers less than a hundred thousand dollars, far cheaper than building a new bus system. Nor does it involve navigating the regional transit authority or negotiating with potentially unionized public employees.
In the final days of February, the city cemented the details of its new public transit system, and on March 4th, it announced the pilot.
The response shocked even Martz: in the weeks following the launch, Uber ridership within Altamonte exploded, rising tenfold, Martz told me. Calls cascaded in from officials in other cities curious about Martz’s experiment
Just weeks after the March launch, the neighboring, more affluent suburb of Maitland began considering an identical pilot program. By July, it and three other cities in the northern Orlando area had approved copycat Uber deals, bringing more than a hundred thousand of the region’s residents into the sphere of Uber-run public transit. Interest in Martz’s deal was not limited to central Florida, either. Martz said transit officials from Los Angeles, Boulder, and Boston have called him for information on the partnership.
During my time in Altamonte, the government-backed Ubers worked just as intended. The two-mile ride to city hall came out to around $4 — two dollars more than the local bus system, but taking a fraction of the time.
On a sweltering Wednesday afternoon, I visited some of Altamonte’s train and bus stations to get a sense of its non-Uber transit options. The Altamonte station of the new greater-Orlando commuter rail system, known as SunRail, lies on a desolately commercial intersection of State Road 436 — populated on its other three sides by a Citgo station, a funeral home, and a bright yellow cash advance service touting itself as “Almost a Bank.”
The station was completely empty when I got there. Eventually, a train arrived and a trickle of people debarked and meandered toward the adjoining bus depot.
One of them was Todd Harrold, a 53-year-old resident of nearby Sanford, which has also approved an Altamonte-style subsidy. He had just stepped off SunRail with his bicycle and was headed to the mall to look for a new pair of glasses. He had planned to take the bus, but finding it would be a half hour wait, decided to bike the two miles down the six-lane highway. “It’s 15 minutes to bike — not bad if I don’t get hit,” he said. Harrold has no smartphone and has never been able to use Uber.
More than half a dozen residents I spoke with in Altamonte had been shut out of the city’s new transit system for various reasons — some lacked credit cards or smartphones, while others were disabled and would have difficulty getting in a regular car. Unlike taxis, Uber isn’t required to provide services for disabled passengers.
At a bus station near the freight area of the Altamonte Mall, I spoke with a homeless man who has no credit card or smartphone, a wheelchair-bound woman waiting for the bus, and a man with a severely cracked Motorola LG onto which he’d downloaded an Uber app that could not get past its undulating loading page. Like Harrold, they were all effectively left behind by the city’s new transit system, and would take the Lynx bus home that day.
Some transit advocates fear that such stories will become more common in a world of Uberized public transport. “Quality public transportation is just that — public — and it’s the fundamental reason transit agencies are required to make an effort to reach out to people with disabilities, people without bank accounts, and people without smartphones,” says Jacob Anbinder, a spokesperson for the TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility. “As Uber finds itself entering into contracts that require it to act as a provider of public transportation, the company will have to adapt to serve this same broad market of riders.”
For Altamonte’s pilot project, this has not yet been the case. The city’s contract with Uber includes nothing regarding the access of people with disabilities or those without smartphones.
Nor does the contract mention the local taxi company, which is required by federal law to serve disabled customers. “You’ve got the city deciding that they’re going to subsidize the easiest to serve, able-bodied young people going out for beer and wings,” said Roger Chapin, the vice president of public affairs at Mears Transportation, Orlando’s decades-old cab company, who says he learned about Altamonte’s Uber deal through the local newspaper. Uber acknowledges its services aren’t as accessible as they could be, but says it is fast evolving. Andrew Salzberg, head of Transportation Policy and Research at Uber, pointed to experiments the company has launched to deploy fleets of wheelchair-accessible Ubers, and noted that in Pinellas County, Florida, Uber is testing a call-in dispatch service for low-income residents who will be able to access the system with or without smartphones. “We’re not at the final answer to these problems,” Salzberg told me, “but we’re getting to the right places through a bunch of initiatives.”
Martz acknowledged that some people would be denied access to Altamonte’s Uber system, but said that a “one-size-fits-all” mode of transit would be too inefficient, and that people without smartphones have alternatives, like the public bus system. He also pointed to a Lynx-run transit service that disabled Altamonte residents can call upon.
In discussing the accessibility gaps in his transit system, Martz described it as a matter of consumer choice. “A hunter using a bow and arrow will not feed his family as efficiently as a hunter with a gun,” Martz told me. “And there are still plenty of transportation choices, although not as good, for those people who don’t have smartphone access. Users have to make the choice, and I think that’s the beauty of our pilot. Instead of jamming tech or infrastructure down the throats of potential users, we’ve provided just one more of them. Users will make the choice that’s best for them. If they prefer to not have a smartphone that’s the life they choose to live.”
On January 27th, a partnership specialist at Uber sent Martz’s colleague a nondisclosure agreement and asked for an e-signature. The NDA was broad in scope, requiring Altamonte keep secret “any technical or business information” regarding Uber, or else face a potential lawsuit that could put the city on the hook for attorney fees and civil damages. It would also mean that a taxpayer-funded program could potentially violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s transparency laws.
Martz responded immediately, asking a different Uber official whether the company would reconsider. “[R]emember we are a government in the sunshine,” Martz told an Uber general manager for Florida. “So some of the codicils here are not lawful.”
Martz quickly prevailed in getting Uber to drop the NDA, but a few weeks later, something odd popped up in a draft of the public transit agreement Altamonte would sign with Uber. In a proviso toward the bottom of the agreement, Uber granted itself a privilege to field public records requests that the city receives regarding its partnership. “In the event City receives a Public Record Law request for documents that Uber considers trade secret or otherwise confidential,” the final contract reads, the city “agrees to promptly notify Uber of said request and shall not make an immediate disclosure.”
Uber’s penchant for secrecy can put it at odds with conventions of government transparency. In other cities, the company has convinced regulators to allow it to hide its ridership data — Uber’s agreement with Boston requires the city to keep Uber’s ridership data under wraps, even stipulating that the company will pay the city’s litigation costs in a fight to keep that data confidential. In San Francisco, data that Lyft or Uber gives the city is under seal and thus reportedly hidden — even from city transportation planners.
For public transit partnerships that allot tax dollars to private companies, a wide degree of openness about ridership data is standard, says Anbinder of TransitCenter. “We like to say you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Ridership data can also shed light on whether a transit system is benefiting an entire community or just a part of it. “Where and when are trips ending?” asks Mariah Montgomery, a campaign strategist at the Partnership for Working Families, which has pressed Uber for ridership data. “That data… allows you to see where there is a need, and also gives you a sense of whether they are serving all neighborhoods equitably.”
An Uber spokesperson told The Verge that asking public agencies to sign NDAs is not a standard company practice. And Uber’s Salzberg acknowledged that his company has been less forthcoming with ridership data than some of its older competitors, but said that times have changed — and competition has intensified. “Yellow cabs have been great about this in the past,” Salzberg said, adding that such companies often held monopolies over their markets, making the release of data of little competitive concern. “There’s a different competitive situation for data that makes it different for us to be as transparent as things were before.”
When I asked Martz for Altamonte’s ridership data, he politely declined, citing Uber’s preference for confidentiality as well as a Florida state court ruling on Uber’s ridership data. “Sometimes the thing that matters most is moving people, not being able to find every piece of paper,” he said. Martz says that he, a few members of his senior staff, and city commissioners are allowed to review the Altamonte ridership data, but not the general public.
Uber’s desire for confidentiality in its dealings with public agencies extends beyond ridership data. Last month, a transit official in Pinellas County named Chris Cochran told me about an initiative in which Uber would experiment with a call-in dispatch system for riders who lack smartphones. Cochran’s openness came off as routine: he was a public official simply talking about a partnership his agency was negotiating.
But shortly after I asked Uber about the program, I received an email from Cochran. Uber had contacted him, urging him not to release the name of the initiative even though it was technically a matter of the public record. Cochran feared that the very act of releasing the Uber product name — UberCentral — before the official launch could have killed the entire partnership. “We just don’t want to jeopardize our partnership by not at least trying to prevent that from going out,” Cochran said, later adding that, “they just want to keep it under wraps.”
(Like Martz, Cochran came to Uber after facing a setback in a major push to widen Pinellas County’s existing mass transit options. In 2014, his agency failed to pass a 1 cent sales tax that would have expanded bus service and created a light rail system, and instead was forced to cut back the existing bus system.)
I also asked for ridership data from the local transit authority in Pinellas County regarding its deal with Uber to subsidize trips to local bus stations. Citing a state statute governing trade secret exemptions to government records, a spokesperson denied the request.
After several days in Altamonte, I went to Pinellas County to see how one of Uber’s first partnerships with a public transit agency was faring. Like many of the company’s early efforts, Uber had attempted to bridge gaps in the existing transit infrastructure, offering discounted rides to and from bus stations.
Parking on a street in a tucked-away, working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, I summoned an Uber to take me to a bus station just under a mile away. A few minutes later, a driver appeared in an immaculate Kia Soul and whisked me to the Walmart bus stop. Largely subsidized by the county, the trip cost only $2.77.
My experience was smooth, but in June Cochran of the PSTA told me that the program’s ridership had been modest. “It has not been a huge success in terms of ridership numbers,” said Cochran. “I can be upfront about that.”
In the case of Altamonte, the city’s first-last mile initiative, which offers a discount of 25 percent when traveling to train stations, has lagged far behind the city’s main Uber program. “The monstrous majority” of subsidized Uber rides in Altamonte, Martz says “are intra community trips.”
The experiences of Pinellas County and Altamonte Springs comport with the observations of Jon Orcutt, director of communications and advocacy at the Transit Center. “The whole idea of First Mile Last Mile is really overblown,” says Orcutt. “It misses the point that most people that use transit most often live and work near it.”
Uber tells a different story, saying that its rides to and from transit stations bridge a key gap. Salzberg, Uber’s transportation policy official, says this role fits perfectly with the company’s mission of getting more people into fewer cars, and with transit agencies’ need to maintain ridership. And Salzberg says, Uber may not need public transit dollars to influence the sector. Even in cities without partnerships with public transit agencies, customers have begun relying on Uber to shuttle them to and from commuter rail stations, Salzberg says. “And that’s happening without us promoting it — it just made sense.”
Yet this month the Bay Area suburb of Dublin will launch an Altamonte-style program with Uber and Lyft, offering subsidized fares capped at $5 rides throughout the project area, rather than a first-last mile incentive. In fact, thanks to the program, the local transit agency reportedly cut a low-ridership bus route.
Subsidies or not, if Uber can drive its price low enough, at a certain point it could start to look more like a replacement for mass transit than a supplement to it. Recently the company has struck out on its own, experimenting with big-picture alternatives to public transit even in cities that have yet to fund its services. In February Uber reportedly offered its fixed-route “UberHOP” rides for just $1 in Seattle, a significant savings over buses. In May, as Washington, DC was preparing for more subway shutdowns due to maintenance, Uber announced it would expand its UberPool program throughout the agency’s service area, pitching itself as a congestion-reducing alternative to the city’s faltering transit system. Uber’s popularity in the city apparently got the attention of a DC transit official, who said that “the need for late-night service is lower since people are using [ride-hailing] services.”
In New York, where Uber has skirmished with Mayor Bill de Blasio and where the Metropolitan Transit Authority has blamed it and Lyft for $10 million in lost revenue, Uber rolled out a summertime monthly pass granting commuters unlimited Uber rides during morning and evening rush hours. At $79 per month, the price significantly undercuts the MTA’s prices for someone riding the subway twice daily, though its hours and coverage area are more limited. That cost may be further driven down through a partnership with WageWorks that was announced this week, which will let New York riders pay for UberPool using pretax dollars.
Of course, all these cost cuts will pale in comparison to what Uber will be able to do once it replaces human drivers with autonomous vehicles, which the company recently began testing in Pittsburgh.
With or without the cooperation of public agencies, Uber is becoming a new transit provider for at least a segment of the population. For cities like New York with extensive transit systems, this could mean a new front in the Uber wars — or a new era of private-public collaboration in transit. Either way, the rise of ride-sharing will spell major changes in how the country’s largest transit systems move people.
Yet, as officials from both Uber and Lyft emphasized in speaking with me, America’s largest cities could be mere sideshows compared to smaller towns and suburbs. And some experts say that the highest-density subway and bus lines could not be replaced by Uber anyway, arguing that it would cause too much roadway congestion. But the vast majority of Americans live in places more like car-dominated Altamonte than hyperdense Manhattan. “That is an emerging area where you can expect to see more activity,” said Emily Castor, director of transportation policy at Lyft. Castor says Lyft is “very interested” in propagating the Altamonte model across the country and sees it as “an opportunity to grow Lyft in suburban areas rather than just the urban core.” Uber’s Saltzberg noted that only 2 or 3 percent of total trips in the US are done via public transit and asserts that Uber wants to be “a tool in the toolkit for cities that are trying to make better transportation choices.”
Despite lingering concerns over transparency and accessibility, the earliest results of Uber’s Altamonte experiment show a considerable demand for Uber in government. As soon as next year, Martz said, the five neighboring cities that have signed copycat deals could create a seamless network of Uber subsidies that will allow riders to traverse the region on the tax-funded Ubers. And Edward L. Johnson, the head of the greater Orlando regional transit system, Lynx — which services more than 1.8 million residents in an area roughly the size of Delaware — says his agency is hoping to soon begin incorporating ride-share companies into its offerings, possibly with an across-the-board subsidy similar to Altamonte’s.
With FlexBus, Martz says he had failed to make the regional transit authority budge. Now, thanks to Uber, projects are racing ahead, and Martz doesn’t seem surprised.
“Uber had brought to the market a very workable solution,” Martz told me. “The choice was obvious to us.”
Virginia regional transportation officials to study possibility of inter-city van pool (2/21/18). At Wednesday’s meeting of the Central Virginia Metropolitan Planning Organization, the board voted unanimously to update language in the organization’s annual Unified Planning Work Program to allow a study on the viability of a van pool transporting people from Lynchburg to other Virginia cities such as Charlottesville or Roanoke.
State Laws for Child Safety Seats in Rideshare Vehicles (Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, 2018). This website was created to help parents, caregivers, and drivers of ride-share vehicles better understand the laws and regulations surrounding child passenger safety. It includes state-by-state guidance that will help you understand regulations and responsibilities, whether you’re looking for information about your home area or are planning a trip, with links to actual regulations for each state.
Disruptive Innovations in Ridesharing (Center for Urban Transportation Research, 2013). Webinar presentation by Dr. Susan Shaheen (Transportation Sustainability Research Center, University of California, Berkeley) and reactions by a panel on current trends in ridesharing, including real-time ridesharing.
The Sharing Economy: Implications for Ridesharing (Joblinks Employment Transportation Center 2013). Looks at principles that are driving the growth of the sharing economy and how they apply to ridesharing.
Ridesharing as a Complement to Transit (Transit Cooperative Research Program, Synthesis No. 98, 2012). Looks at the state of the practice as well to assist transit agencies and other entities in deciding how to enhance ridesharing and public transit coordination.
Ridesharing in North America: Past, Present, and Future (Transportation Sustainability Research Center, Univ. of California Berkeley, 2011). Looks at historical and future trends in ridesharing and factors that impact those trends.
Starting and Growing Rural Vanpool Programs: From Financing to Vehicle Procurement (Community Transportation Association of America, 2010). Covers how to develop and sustain vanpooling, with examples of how to obtain vehicles and how federal, state, and local funds and tax benefits can be packaged to support rural vanpools.
Vanpooling: A Promising Transportation Option for Commuters with Disabilities (webinar) (Joblinks Employment Transportation Center, 2010). Explores ways to include workers with disabilities in vanpools.
Vanpooling. This page, developed bythe Joblinks Employment Transportation Center, provides an online training (2013) for transit agencies considering integrating vanpooling into their transportation offerings, as well as profiles of vanpooling programs and resources.
How can this strategy result in health benefits?
- Address chronic disease (e.g., asthma, diabetes, heart disease)
- Reduce transportation’s contribution to air pollution
How has this worked in practice?
GoTriangle is a partnership of public transportation agencies and organizations formed to promote commuter benefits across the Triangle region of North Carolina (Raleigh-Durham-Cary-Chapel Hill). The partnership coordinates programs and a website (GoTriangle.org) to help residents of the region find alternative travel options, including public transportation, and commuter options such as vanpools and carpools. The commute alternatives programs under GoTriangle aim to reduce traffic congestion and emissions through specific commute trip reduction strategies. Those include carpool, vanpool, public transportation pass, and other programs developed in partnership with individual Triangle communities and area universities and colleges. GoTriangle.org provides access to these programs, and to SharetheRideNC.com, a statewide ride matching service. GoTriangle is a part of the Triangle 7-Year Long Range Transportation Demand Management (TDM) Plan administered by the Triangle J Council of Governments, in coordination with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, regional metropolitan planning organizations, and regional and local public transportation agencies. The purpose of the 7-year plan is to reduce regional growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 25% between 2007 and 2015. For 2010, regional impacts of the Triangle TDM Program were estimated to include daily reductions of 223,711 VMT and 101,945 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Partners in GoTriangle also coordinate the program with their own agency environmental and health targets and initiatives. Wake Technical Community College, for example, emphasizes GoTriangle commuter options as part of the Wake Tech ZOOM (Zeroing Ozone Output Measures) program, an initiative by the college to reduce its carbon footprint through participation in alternative transportation.
Where can I learn more?
The U.S. DOT Ridesharing Options Analysis and Practitioner’s Toolkit provides an overview of current ridesharing trends. It serves as a toolkit for public agencies to create ridesharing programs tailored to meet the needs of their constituency. The report also includes an index of public and private entities engaged in ridesharing.
Carpool Incentive Programs: Implementing Commuter Benefits as one of the Nation’s Best Workplaces for Commuters explains the how-to details and benefits of establishing a carpool incentive program from the perspective of an employer.
The Ridesharing Institute site provides archival information on the institute’s applied research, webinar series, and links to other research and resources.
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Deitrick S, Briem CP, Beach S, Fan X. Impacts of vanpooling in Pennsylvania and future opportunities. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT); 2010.
Gallivan F, Ang-Olson J, Liban CB, Kusumoto A. Cost-effective approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through public transportation in Los Angeles, California. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 2011;2(2217):19–29.
Graham-Rowe E, Skippon S, Gardner B, Abraham C. Can we reduce car use and, if so, how? A review of available evidence. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 2011;45(5):401–18.
Guenin H. Suburban transportation demand management for a diverse workforce. Portland, OR: Upstream Public Health; 2013.
ICF Consulting. Performance review of transportation funds for clean air projects: Literature review. Fairfax, VA: ICF Consulting; 2006.
Levofsky A, Greenberg A. Organized dynamic ride sharing: The potential environmental benefits and the opportunity for advancing the concept. Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board 2001 Annual Meeting. Working Paper 01-0577; 2001.
Salon D, Boarnet MG, Handy S, Spears S, Tal G. How do local actions affect VMT? A critical review of the empirical evidence. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment 2012;17(7):495–508.
U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT). Ridesharing Options Analysis and Practitioners’ Toolkit; 2010.
Yura EA, Eisinger D, Niemeier D. A review of on-road vehicle mitigation measures. Davis, CA: University of California, Davis; 2006.