September 19, 2016
Public transit agencies across the country are entering into partnerships with ride-sharing service Uber to supplement their service.
The partnerships range from direct subsidies for Uber riders heading to transit stops in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area to joint marketing in Philadelphia and North Carolina’s Research Triangle. The programs make sense for both groups because they both get increased ridership, officials say.
Uber couldn’t be reached for comment on the programs, but transit agencies said the partnerships have helped to increase ridership on their systems.
In Florida, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority ran a six-month trial that began in March during which the authority supplemented half the cost of an Uber rider’s trip up to $3 to or from a transit stop in a small, underserved part of its system. Media liaison Ashlie Handy said the deal with Uber wouldn’t allow her to release exact numbers, but the program was so successful that beginning Oct. 1 it will be expanded throughout the authority’s service area.
“What sold the program for me was when we got a call from a woman who wanted to know how to get to the bus stop that was more than a mile away,” Ms. Handy said. “Before, we had no other answer for her than to walk, but now she can use Uber.”
The program actually saved the authority money because it eliminated two little-used routes in the area that cost about $140,000 a year. The Uber subsidy cost $40,000.
Pinellas Suncoast also operates another program in conjunction with Uber. Bus service ends by 11 p.m., which means public transit isn’t available for workers on second or third shifts. The agency received a $300,000 federal grant to 23 free rides a month between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. with Uber or United Taxi.
In North Carolina, Go Triangle provides long-distance rides between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Each city has its own local bus service.
Since March, Go Triangle has been involved in a three-way deal with Uber and TransLoc, a firm that provides real-time bus schedules. Together, they promote the idea of using a smartphone app to order an Uber to either take riders to the bus station or pick them up when they arrive.
Spokesman Brad Schultz said the program has been “really helpful to us and to them,” although he couldn’t provide exact figures for increased ridership. It fills the gap known in transit circles as “first mile, last mile,” the distance from a transit rider’s home to the bus or from the bus to their ultimate destination.
“It could be a real game-changing solution for some people,” Mr. Shultz said. “That’s what we hear from our riders that use it.”
In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority had a cross-promotion with Uber to encourage transit riders to use the service to get to 11 specific train stations along its commuter rail system. Uber offered riders a 40 percent discount if they were going to or coming from a train station.
Erik Johanson, SEPTA’s director of innovation, said the program was targeted at stations where park-and-ride lots filled by 7:30 a.m. or stations were under construction, limiting the amount of available parking. The program ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
At a meeting last week, Mr. Johanson said, Uber reported an increased number of riders at all 11 stations. It also had “quite a few new users” on a route that took passengers to Philadelphia International Airport.
Mr. Johanson said his agency is in talks with Uber about resuming the program, but the agency will be very careful not to use ride-sharing service in areas where it will interfere with their business.
“Both Uber and SEPTA have a mutually beneficial reason to do [service-to-train stations],” he said. “But we’re not going to use this model to substitute for our service.”
In Allegheny County, Port Authority spokesman Adam Brandolph said he is aware of the efforts other transit agencies have made with ride-sharing services.
“We recognize that there are private companies that can be used to connect people to our services, and we are open to learning more about how they might benefit public transportation in Allegheny County,” he said.
The authority is in continuing negotiations with Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which last week rejected a tentative contract agreement.
In other transit authorities, the Uber partnerships haven’t been viewed as a threat to union drivers.
“Our ride-share partners are viewed as our support system,” Ms. Handy said. “There is a place for ride-sharing and transit, but who knew it would be side by side?”