No, Uber’s Not Going to Replace Buses, But It Can Complement Them

Not a day goes by without a raft of stories about “new mobility” providers — ride-hailing companies like Uber or car-share services like Car2Go that have tapped into recent technological advances to provide new ways to get around.

ansas City is using the private vanpool service Bridj to link two neighborhoods with weak transit connections. Image: Bridj
Kansas City teamed up with the private vanpool service Bridj to link two neighborhoods that the bus network didn’t connect well. Image: Bridj

In a new report, “Private Mobility, Public Interest” [PDF], TransitCenter deflates some of the hype surrounding these services while laying out several opportunities for productive collaboration between public transit agencies and private mobility providers.

Despite what you may have read, none of these services will replace transit — at least not buses and trains that move large numbers of people. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help transit agencies improve service, diversify their offerings, and operate more effectively.

Based on interviews with more than a hundred people working on mobility in the public and private sectors, TransitCenter’s report examines the opportunities for transit agencies to team up with mobility companies. If transit agencies keep the core values of providing “equitable, efficient, affordable, and sustainable transportation” in mind, TransitCenter writes, they can forge new partnerships that yield broad public benefits.

Here are some of the most fertile areas for collaboration.

Convenient, Cost-Effective Paratransit

Paratransit for riders with disabilities is usually among the most expensive types of service for transit agencies to provide. This can strain budgets and drain resources from other transit services. If agencies can provide paratransit at lower costs per trip, they can free up resources to run more bus or train service.

Both Boston and Washington have started to experiment with contracting paratransit to taxi and ride-hailing companies that can not only operate the service more cost-effectively, but also offer riders more convenience.

In Washington, WMATA offers paratransit riders the option of choosing a taxi with just one-hour advance notice. (The agency’s own paratransit services require 24 hours notice.) Now the agency is pursuing a program that would allow paratransit users in select areas to book rides with companies like Uber and Lyft.

Boston’s MBTA is exploring a similar program in partnership with Uber and United Taxi. An earlier pilot along the same lines was reportedly popular with customers and offered the possibility, at least, for significant savings. TransitCenter says more research is needed to explore the potential of these types of arrangements.

Reaching Spread Out or Hard-to-Serve Areas

For walkable places with lots of people and destinations clustered together, there is no substitute for buses and trains. But some places and some trips just don’t match up well with fixed route transit service. These are intriguing territory for partnership between transit agencies and private mobility providers.

One of these places is the town of Altamonte Springs, outside Orlando, which offers an across-the-board 20 percent subsidy on all Uber trips within city limits. Residents receive a 25 percent discount for rides that begin or end at an Orlando Sun Rail commuter rail station. Right now, TransitCenter says, it’s not entirely clear how well the program is working, and it could be that towns like Altamonte Springs are simply too car-oriented to even benefit much from ride-hailing services. The city’s goal, however, is an admirable one: allowing residents to use on-demand service like Uber locally and to access the regional commuter rail system for longer trips.

Another type of partnership is taking shape in Kansas City, where KCATA teamed up with the van-pooling company Bridj to provide service between two central city neighborhoods. To get from one neighborhood to the other on KCATA’s fixed-route service requires multiple transfers. The Bridj partnership enables more direct service.

KCATA rented Ford vans for the experiment and uses its own drivers, in order to avoid labor disputes. Bridj provides the tech platform for flexible on-demand service. To use it, people usually walk a short distance to a pick-up location and share a vehicle with other people headed in the same direction. The price is the same as a regular bus trip: $1.50. KCATA isn’t anticipating enormous ridership, TransitCenter reports (about 200 passengers a day), but the service should save them time.

Data Sharing

Another big opportunity for transit agencies is embedded in the trip data of companies like Uber and Lyft. Information about the origins and destinations of those trips can shed light on travel demand and help adjust service patterns. But companies view this data as proprietary and local governments usually have to pry it out of them the hard way.

California, Chicago, Houston, New York City, New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio, and Seattle have all obtained data from ride-hailing companies using local laws. However, Uber typically goes to court to avoid compliance, and it succeeds about half the time, according to TransitCenter.

Boston tried a different route, forging a voluntary data sharing agreement with Uber. That partnership, however, did not yield much insight, TransitCenter reports, and indicated that “the company — and its competitors — will be reluctant to disclose useful data voluntarily.”

But the value of data sharing between the public and private sectors runs both ways. Transit agencies can improve the experience of their own riders by opening up data for use by software companies like Transit App and Moovel. Another recent report by TransitCenter found, for example, that transit riders highly value real-time arrival information, which third-party developers can help deliver if the transit agency opens up its data.

  • Alon Levy

    2 problems that I can see:

    1. Uber vehicles are not always (maybe even usually not?) accessible; in that sense it’s a step back from regulated taxis.

    2. The data provided by Uber et al is great at showing where people who pay premium fares go; these are not the same people who take cheaper buses, many of whom do not even own smartphones.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I can’t really speak to Item #2, but as for #1, at least in the large Los Angeles market, Uber offers two accessibility-focused options: uberASSIST for those requiring “additional assistance” (I assume those with general mobility issues) as well as uberWAV for those requiring wheelchair access.

    I think what will be key here is getting wait times down. At the moment, in my admittedly central/dense Downtown LA neighborhood, the wait time for uberASSIST is 10 minutes (not bad) and the wait time for uberWAV is 37 minutes (seems long, but apparently much better than the hour- or day-long advance notice times mentioned in the article).

    My hope is that if/when public transit agencies decide to contract with Uber for paratransit service, my hope is that these wait times will drop even further.

  • Jason

    Referencing NYC, not all taxis are accessible and I’d guess that the large majority aren’t. So that’s a wash. But requesting an accessible Uber is a lot more efficient than going down to the street and hoping that you manage to hail an accessible taxi.

    The smartphone problem is a good point. If transit agencies are going to solely partner with Uber/Lyft for this kind of stuff then it seems like they’re going to have to create a way to call in to request a car be sent to you (which I’m guessing would basically take the form of calling in and having someone place the ride request for you).

  • Alex Brideau III

    There’s also the possibility that transit agencies could contract with services like GoGoGrandparent (which aims to allow users to “Use on demand services with a simple phone call”). I’ve never tried (or had my parents try) that service, but it shows promise, I think.

  • laughtiger

    It’s not a “wash.” In many cities regulated taxis are required to provide a percentage of accessible vehicles–it’s not necessary that they all be accessible. Uber and Lyft have resisted any attempts to require them to provide a similar level of accessibility–and not surprisingly, because their entire business model is based on providing taxi services without the expense of taxi regulation.

  • laughtiger

    You’ll find that the Uber access and wav options frequently say “no cars available.” My impression is that they are just a screen for uber to claim that they provide the service, when in fact they are actively resisting attempts by regulators to REQUIRE them to provide this service 24/7, or to have a minimum percentage of their fleet accessible.

  • laughtiger

    This is really an old idea, that has been around since the 70s, of integrating taxis with the public transportation system. In San Francisco, this was part of the reason taxi regulation was moved under the control of the MTA.

    It’a a good idea in principle, but when you bring Uber (or similar companies like Lyft) into the mix, it becomes a very bad idea.

    Uber is a very dangerous company to become involved with. They are aiming to become too big to fail. They already boss around local governments (even New York City!) when they don’t get their way. Do you really want to partner with someone like this?

    And as for data, before Uber local taxi companies and regulators were already starting to gather the same kind of data Uber now controls. Uber represents an enclosure of this data in private hands, which cities now have to buy instead of controlling themselves. A better idea: cities should cut Uber out, develop their own local and regional cab and transit systems, that generate their own data. Why be Uber’s hostage?

  • Peter Smith

    I think making a statement like this is….remarkably confident.

    “No, Uber’s Not Going to Replace Buses, But It Can Complement Them”

    i’m sure someone said the same about buses not replacing the trolley cars.

    and i’m sure there are countless other example of ‘things which could never happen’.

    and i think we have to talk about predictions from at least two povs:
    1) what can/might/probably/will happen, and
    2) what should happen.

    really, whether or not Uber can ‘replace buses’ — in terms of effectiveness — is besides the point. it just doesn’t matter. what actually matters is can Uber and their allies make it happen.

    we recently saw the announcement of the un-privatizing of some federal prisons. that’s a positive thing. but it came at the cost of i don’t know how many deaths/murders, untold suffering and financial costs, etc. and we all knew this is what privatization would bring and it happened anyways.

    the same can/is and will happen with Uber and transit systems — along with the requisite suffering.

    the only real question is what can we do to try to prevent/slow it, and ultimately, will we be able to un-privatize it?

  • That or demand is way higher than they imagined, so they don’t have enough accessible vehicles in their fleet.

  • “before Uber local taxi companies and regulators were already starting to gather the same kind of data Uber now controls.”

    Really now? How does Uber “control” such data? Being very good at gathering it?

    “Uber represents an enclosure of this data in private hands”–as if actions by the private cab companies before Uber did not?

    Really, some people’s reasoning is interesting to say the least.

  • laughtiger

    The whole idea of integrating Uber into public transit–beside using public money to prop up a corporation that is losing billions of dollars a year–is to privatize transit services. Privatizing transit means that the data generated is now in private hands, and cities and regulators have to buy it from Uber (or somehow get them to hand it over), instead of the public owning that data already.

    The city I’m familiar with is SF, where cab companies are required to share their gps data with the city.

  • laughtiger

    If they were serious about providing accessible services, why resist regulation requiring them to do so? If they aren’t required to provide it, they can drop these services whenever they feel like it, just as arbitrarily as they change their rates.

  • calwatch

    This seems odd since the fact that public transit has a government granted monopoly is a relatively new phenomenon. Unlike prisons, which historically was a public function that is contracted out, people could always go places and hitch rides before government enacted anti-jitney laws to prevent private operators from skimming riders off transit. The complementary nature arises when government abandons some of these useless, once an hour or worse routes in suburban sprawl and refocuses them on areas where there is sufficient density. You would congestion price or prioritize vehicles that carry more than 10 passengers, such as buses and vanpools, to discourage private drivers from skimming off the busy routes.

  • Pete

    Not sure what history of transit you’re looking at, but to call public transit a government-granted monopoly isn’t remotely close to the truth. Nobody’s stopping bus companies from operating service. In fact, in many places in metro New York, private carriers and transit agencies happily coexist.

    Why? Because transit agencies never turn a profit on operations. These private carriers operate commuter services and charge a fare that keeps them in business. If public transit weren’t subsidized you would either not be able to afford to run the majority of an agency’s routes, or you would have to raise fares out of the reach of the people most reliant on transit to get around.

    It’s a moot point as long as Uber and Lyft are still dependent of infusions of venture capital because otherwise they’re operating at a loss as well.

  • Pete

    Not to undermine your equity argument, but for one Uber trial in Florida there’s a call center set up to call in a trip request. My understanding is that this was a hard-fought concession and is highly unlikely to be replicated.

  • @Cali Curmudgeon – Uber has an open data API that anyone can query to find information from, except of course any sort of information that could indicate wrongdoing. Not very useful.

  • neroden

    We’ve proven that Uber fails miserably on high-traffic corridors — just doesn’t work. It simply can’t replace trains, and it won’t replace trains. They don’t even have enough money to bribe the government to get rid of trains, because they’re going bankrupt.

    The real problem is that Uber is destroying taxis. When Uber goes bankrupt, we’ll be left with no taxis. That’s pretty miserable. The situation in Austin is horrifying, with Uber and Lyft pulled out (because they refused to meet basic safety requirements), and with only 900 taxis, all of which have terrible reviews (for things like “did not show up”, “cheated me”, “drove unsafely”, etc.)

    We need some sort of backstop for the collapse of the taxi system. Carshare like car2go, maybe?

  • neroden

    By contrast, in functioning first-world countries like the UK, all taxis are accessible, already, since the 1990s.

    But here in the US, and particularly in NYC, we live in an underdeveloped third-world backwater. I wish people would admit this so we can start changing it.

  • neroden

    There are an increasing series of lawsuits and eventually I suspect all taxis will be required to be accessible. If Uber tries to fight this… well, don’t underestimate the disabled-senior lobby.

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