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Connecting the Sectors: Weaving a New Transit Network

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, February 17th, 2016


Written by Chuck McCutcheon and published in Passenger Transport, the Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis

When Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) President/Executive Director Gary Thomas appeared on a local transportation panel in 2014, he struck up a conversation with another panelist—a regional representative of Uber.

“I said, ‘You know, we’re missing an opportunity here,’” recalled Thomas, a former APTA chair and currently vice chair of the Mobility Management Committee. “We talked afterward and I said that we really ought to get together and talk about synergies and opportunities that would benefit both of us.”

That led DART to join with the private e-hail taxi service on an arrangement in which the company offered discounted rides on St. Patrick’s Day to help revelers get to and from rail stations or other locations on what typically is the agency’s busiest day of the year. It marked one of the earliest partnerships between public transit and a private transportation network company (TNC)— and has been followed by a growing assortment of other arrangements.

Thomas and an increasing number of others in public transportation agree it’s fruitless to echo the adversarial stance that taxi companies initially adopted after Uber came on the scene in 2009. They say the explosive popularity of Uber and other on-demand private providers such as Lyft, Bridj and Zipcar with millennials and other potential customers compels cooperation, not confrontation.

In addition to Dallas, Uber has formed partnerships or agreements with agencies in such cities as Atlanta, San Francisco and Portland, OR. DART and several other cities also have worked with Lyft, which launched the “Friends with Transit” awareness campaign in November as part of what company spokeswoman Mary Caroline Pruitt called an effort to showcase “the potential in unlocking Lyft as a first-and-lastmile transportation solution.”

At the same time, public transit agencies are also teaming with other private entities. For example, Minneapolis’ Metro Transit joined with the car-sharing organization Hourcar in September to enable the use of its Go-To transit cards—rather than the company’s key fobs—to access the companies’ vehicles.

All of this is occurring as companies are rapidly unveiling advances in tripplanning software and other features that makes it easier for smartphone users to seamlessly integrate their bus or rail rides into their planned car or bike trips. For example, the public transportation planning app Moovit announced a new feature in January that enables users of iOS and Android phones to look for shared bikes in more than 200 cities.

Also that month, Los Angeles’ DOT rolled out the “Go L.A.” mobile app, which lists various route options for public transit along with ride-hailing services, taxis and other transportation modes. It ranks them not only by which is cheapest or fastest, but which is “greenest” by measuring carbon-dioxide emissions for each option.

Jon McDonald, chair of APTA’s Research and Technology Committee, agrees that public transit has an excellent opportunity to work with TNCs. If done properly, such partnerships “can change our value proposition” within public transit without jeopardizing ridership, said McDonald, vice president for Americas Rail and Transit Practice-Leader, CH2M in San Francisco.

Forces of Change

These partnerships and other innovations are being fueled by two unmistakable trends—evolving technologies and changing demographics, both of which are challenging the industry to be nimble and flexible and are key strategic goals of APTA.

“Staying smarter is how the best organizations succeed and the most dynamic industries grow,” said APTA President & CEO Michael Melaniphy. “It starts with knowing what’s around the corner and how the market is changing.”

What’s around the corner, he said, are new technologies. “This can only be good news for our industry if we look for synergies beyond the boundaries of public transportation.”

APTA has been taking the lead in bringing together members, researchers and TNCs to better understand these changing dynamics and how the industry can maximize these opportunities.

At its October 2015 meeting, the APTA Board of Directors developed a policy framework that can guide its members in navigating those shifting boundaries. The APTA Policy Framework/Principles: Integrated Mobility/ Transformative Technologies identifies key questions and details principles to “help shape the evolving new frontiers in mobility and public transportation and assure that the public is served with efficient, equitable, and convenient travel choices.” (See related story, page 9.)

In addition, baby boomers and millennials are opting out of the driver’s seat and into passenger seats on buses and rail in growing numbers, making integrated mobility increasingly important to the industry, said Marlene Connor, chair of APTA’s Mobility Management Committee.

“[T]he drivers of this are the two groups—the boomers, who are moving back to places and not driving a car, and a lot of young people who aren’t getting drivers’ licenses,” said Connor, principal at Marlene Connor Associates LLC in Springfield, MA. “It’s a great opportunity for public transit to say, ‘Hey, we have the answer here.’”

Both Connor and McDonald are part of a multi-committee APTA working group exploring the issue. Connor said the group has reached out to the Transportation Research Board, National League of Cities, Institute of Transportation Engineers, AARP and ITS America, among other entities, “to create a dialogue with APTA as a thought leader in this area.”

As part of that effort, the working group—which includes broad representation from many of APTA’s committees— conducts monthly calls with experts in this area, including Steven Polzin, University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR); Susan Shaheen, Institute of Transportation Studies’ Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC), University of California, Berkeley; Joshua Schank, Los Angeles County Metro; and Mobility Lab’s Howard Jennings.

Mutual Curiosity

Private providers are anxious to keep the discussion going with public transit agencies, emphasizing that the partnerships are a start toward reducing overall car ridership and encouraging more transit use—while providing them with a possible well of new customers.

“There’s been a lot of mutual curiosity,” said Peter Gould, Uber’s senior transportation policy associate. “We’re excited about having these conversations and having these connections, and talking to each other about the other not in a negative sense, but about how we complement public transit and the impact of Uber.”

Joshua Cohen, director of strategy and partnerships at the Durham, N.C., transportation technology firm TransLoc Inc., agreed. “The pace of change we’re seeing now is faster than I’ve ever seen it. Even talking six months later to the same transit agencies, their perspective has changed.”

In January, APTA member TransLoc and Uber (soon to be an APTA member) unveiled a pilot program that the companies said they hope prove influential in bridging the first mile/last mile challenge. TransLoc will integrate Uber into the TransLoc Rider app, a smartphone application that provides real-time bus tracking and route planning. The integration is scheduled to begin in mid-February with Raleigh-Durham’s GoTriangle and Tennessee’s Memphis Area Transit Authority.

“With ride sharing, its strength is the distributed network, where you have all these options to get you to that first mile, last mile,” said Cohen, whose company has seen its technology yield promising results with several college shuttle-bus services.

“What’s its weakness? Cost. It’s not going to take you 20 miles. But it’s perfect for a one-, two- or three-mile trip that might take 15 minutes. That’s where we’re excited about the potential of this—the connection of taking what is harder for public transit and supplementing it with what’s easier for ride-hailing companies and vice versa,” he added.

Download full issue: Public Transport Volume 74, Number 3

About the American Public Transportation Association
APTA is the leading force in advancing public transportation…To strengthen and improve public transportation, APTA serves and leads its diverse membership through advocacy, innovation and information sharing. APTA and its members and staff work to ensure that public transportation is available and accessible for all Americans in communities across the country.

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One Response to “Connecting the Sectors: Weaving a New Transit Network”

  1. jerry schneider says:

    Uber and Lyft are working with some MASS TRANSIT agencies to provide to/from service to MT stations in several cities. Probably many more to come.
    less rider cost and energy use? Are there other factors that would make it competitive? This arrangement will also probably have a major impact on urban bus systems.In many cities patronage on bus systems is much greater than on LRT systems. If Uber and Lyft are involved, it is OK to call the result a “new transit” network – I guess it depends somewhat on the definition of “transit”. Of course, for those few regular transit riders that can afford to pay Uber and Lyft for their whole trip, some decline in line-haul MT use should also be expected. How will MT agencies deal with the resulting loss in patronage and revenue? Many are not doing so well now(i.e. on a current cost/revenue basis as well as a huge deferred maintenance and unfunded benefits issues). Comments welcome.

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