Are Uber and Lyft the Future of Transit? Not So Fast

This is a PTSA bus. Photo: City of St. Petersburg
This is a PTSA bus. Photo: City of St. Petersburg

Cities that turn to technology companies to save their transit systems are bound to be disappointed by the outcome.

Look no further than Pinellas County, Fla., whose transit authority was the first in the country to supplement its bus service with taxpayer-subsidized rides from Uber in February, 2016.

It all started when Tampa-area voters rejected a proposed increase in transit funding, prompting the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which provides 32,000 trips per day in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, to invite Uber, United Taxi, and Wheelchair Transport to pick up and drop off passengers in areas without existing bus service.

Initially, the PSTA subsidized the first $5 of any Uber ride that took a low-income passenger to a nearby bus station, and it later partnered with the tech company to provide free rides during overnight hours.The PSTA later extended the $5 subsidy to any trips taken in the county. To fund this “Direct Connect” program, the PSTA discontinued a low-performing bus route, which had cost $160,000 to operate.

Pinellas transit planners thought cutting bus service on little-used routes and supplementing them with Uber rides made sense financially. And they found support among county leaders like Florida State Senator Jeff Brandes.

“You need to bring in people who think differently,” Brandes told the Shared Mobility Center in 2016. “The first/last mile issue has been around forever. … Uber and Lyft have only been around for six years. It’s exciting to be able to use technology to help address some of these age-old problems.”

But a new report from the Shared Mobility Center shows that West Floridians were too optimistic about the effects that such taxi companies would have on transit in the Tampa area.

In the first phase of authority’s Direct Connect program, only two Uber rides were ordered per day. The second phase extended the service, allowing passengers to get rides to or from one of eight designated locations across the county, but trips rose to only 40 per day by October 2017. Uber also absorbed many of the riders who relied on the Pinellas Park Circulator, a poorly performing bus route that would be cut the following year.

The third phase expanded the number of designated locations to 24 which boosted ridership to 4,000 trips in September 2018, according to Uber. But Uber made a reporting error in giving the subsidy erroneously to customers ineligible to receive it, which inflated their ridership numbers 60 to 300 percent. Pinellas County renewed the service through 2021 anyway.

At $200,000 per year, Direct Connect is saving the PTSA money — it costs about half of the poorly performing bus route, the East Lake Connector. But Uber has not been transparent about its ridership data, limiting the PTSA from understanding whether ride share is truly the best way to increase public transit usage across the county.

“PSTA’s ability to evaluate Direct Connect’s efficacy in providing a desirable service alternative to those riders has been limited by a lack of agency rider surveys, field observations, or detailed trip data from Uber,” the report found. “Thus far, there has been no effective way for PSTA to understand how Direct Connect use interacts with its scheduled service, including which routes Direct Connect users are transferring to or from, or whether they are making a transfer at all.”

Despite the evidence, regions are still investing in on-demand transit.

In 2016, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority partnered with Uber and Lyft to provide taxpayer-subsidized rides for disabled passengers. But both companies’ ride share services has failed to pick up paratransit customers in the Boston area repeatedly, according to a Boston 25 investigation.

This month, the Utah Transit Authority Board approved one-year $2.5 million agreement with Via to provide on-demand bus-like rides for Salt Lake City residents heading in the same direction at a flat rate.

And just this week the Central Ohio Transit Authority launched an app-based on-demand van service with Via for residents in Grove City, a suburb of Columbus.

Their new app, which was recognized by the federal Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, allows riders to catch a shuttle from a virtual bus stop which they would walk to and then pick up other passengers nearby along an algorithm-designed route.

Sounds almost like bus rapid transit.

7 thoughts on Are Uber and Lyft the Future of Transit? Not So Fast

  1. Yep. Because the irony here is the transit industry will adopt the operating systems and methods from what Uber and Lyft do to attract more riders. Uber and Lyft subsidized the 5.6 billion rides they carried last year to the tune of $2.7 billion, or almost 50 cents a ride. public transit demanded more than $50 billion in subsidies from taxpayers, or more than $5 per ride. In other words, transit subsidies per rider are more than ten times greater than Uber and Lyft subsidies. In other words it’s cheaper to operate lyft and uber even at a operating revenue loss…….than to build buses and trains.

  2. In other words, you have no grasp of the English language and we have no idea what point or message you are trying to get across in relation to the article.

    Are you just on a soap box and trying to get heard?

  3. PSTA didn’t include in the contract required sharing of trip data details, and because they didn’t that means every future transit agency won’t or can’t either? What a dumb idea. Transit agencies should insist on better written contracts learning from the mistakes or oversights of others.

  4. PSTA has been mismanaged for years and they are using their reserves to just keep operating. At the rate they are eating up their reserves, PSTA will be insolvent within 2-3 years. PSTA continues to be mismanaged, continues to fail to fix their declining financial problems and has become a failed transit agency. PSTA was caught misusing federal transit security funds in 2014 on their failed Greenlight Pinellas rail tax referendum and was forced to return over $300K to the feds. PSTA is no model to follow for anything.

  5. “Despite the evidence, regions are still investing in on-demand transit.”

    The “evidence” here consists of a single example, and wholly ignores the dozens of other examples of municipalities that have successfully partnered with Uber or Lyft to provide subsidized rideshare access. As far back as 2016, the Denver suburb of Centennial launched a pilot with Lyft to provide short-distance rides to the area’s light-rail stop, almost entirely for purposes of reducing daily commutes to work via single-occupant vehicle. Is Streetsblog seriously trying to argue that reducing SOV traffic and encouraging rail use is somehow a *bad* thing?

    Further, over a dozen major cities have partnered with Uber and/or Lyft to provide paratransit services, an area where municipalities throughout the U.S. have for the most part failed miserably for multiple decades. Only one example is even mentioned here (the Boston partnership), which has admittedly gotten off to a rocky start). Why did Streetsblog apparently fail to even *look* at any other examples?

    “Uber has not been transparent about its ridership data, limiting the PTSA from understanding whether ride share is truly the best way to increase public transit usage across the county.”

    Uber and Lyft share ridership data with dozens of municipalities – *IF* cities mandate it as part of their operating agreement. PSTA admittedly screwed up in refusing to incorporate data-sharing terms into its operating contract, but at the same time there’s no reason at all to conclude the program as a whole has been a “failure.”

    “At $200,000 per year, Direct Connect is saving the PTSA money — it costs about half of the poorly performing bus route, the East Lake Connector … Pinellas County renewed the service through 2021 anyway.”

    Neither of these statements infers that PSTA’s partnership is a failure – quite the opposite, actually.

    I think Streetsblog’s broader dislike of Uber & Lyft is patently obvious at this point — the headlines of previous articles linked below, e.g. “All the Bad Things About Uber and Lyft In One Simple List” and “The Story of “Micro Transit” Is Consistent, Dismal Failure,” speak volumes — but criticizing the two for partnering with cities to provide rides for low-income and/or disabled and/or elderly passengers (along with last-mile rides to public transit stops) is just silly, even if it doesn’t always work out exactly as planned or, as is the case here, there’s little or no hard ridership data indicating anything one way or the other.

  6. The subject of Philosophy and its subcategories have been widely discussed in both the Western and non-Western world albeit with different focuses. Philosophy includes many different subfields involving investigation into our existence. These subfields include epistemology, ethics, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science, social and political philosophy, and Metaphilosophy. Epistemology focuses on the study of Knowledge, also known as “Theory of Knowledge”. Ethics involves the study of moral values and rules, Logic; the study of reasoning. Metaphysics is the study of being and knowing also known as the principles of reality. Read more at Meditation essay
    One of the first points to be clear about is that a philosophical essay is quite different from an essay in most other subjects. That is because it is neither a research paper nor an exercise in literary self-expression. It is not a report of what various scholars have had to say on a particular topic. It does not present the latest findings of tests or experiments. And it does not present your personal feelings or impressions. Instead, it is a reasoned defense of a thesis.

  7. Uylis, that’s an … interesting response. Without delving into the finer points of epistemology and metaphysics and the like, how about we just focus on the fact that this article — if viewed in the context of a “thesis” — almost entirely fails to prove its point. It does so both by using cherry-picked examples that support its premise, and also entirely ignoring the substantially greater amount of evidentiary data that suggests an alternate conclusion.

    I would therefore submit that this is not a “reasoned defense of a thesis,” but rather unsubstantiated editorializing derived from a plainly biased view of the subject on the author’s part.

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