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Pressed by tight budgets, some towns are cutting transit lines and subsidizing car rides.

August 15, 2016

Pinellas Park, Florida, isn’t the kind of place where you'd expect to gain insight about the future of mass transit. The suburb of Tampa is as car-crazy as your average stretch of Floridian sprawl—the local landmarks include the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum and a drag racing strip—and anyone who can avoid the bus does. But recently the agency responsible for the area’s public transportation began a novel experiment: It stopped running two bus lines and started paying for a portion of Uber rides instead.

In Uber’s early days, it said it wanted to be “everyone’s private driver.” Now the company and its main U.S. competitor, Lyft, are playing around with the idea of becoming the bus driver, too. Uber has partnered with a handful of local public transportation agencies to strike deals like the one in Pinellas Park, which it expanded earlier this month. Later this month Lyft plans to launch a partnership with Centennial, Colorado, its first deal where a local government will subsidize its rides. The company also said it has helped a dozen transit agencies apply for federal grants that would pay for a portion of Lyft fares in situations where its drivers would effectively become part of the public transportation system.

Each of the current projects is tiny, but they could eventually be combined into something big, said Emily Castor, director of transportation policy at Lyft. “This is an area that has the potential to be a very significant part of Lyft’s work in the future,” she said. “How quickly will it progress from small pilots to being institutionalized in transit agencies? I think that’s harder to predict.”

Over the past several years, ride-hailing companies and local government officials have often had an uneasy, sometimes outright hostile relationship over regulation. The public transportation deals have been an oasis of rapprochement between them. In part, the ride-hailing deals are too small to seem threatening, according to Kyle Shelton, a program manager at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. “It may affect some routes; it may affect service overall; but it’s not going to replace the main lines that carry thousands of riders per day,” he said.

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