Category Archives: rideshare

Rideshare Windfall

There’s a new reason to give five stars to Rideshare…at least in Massachusetts.

Local governments will receive a transportation windfall in Massachusetts. Nearly $6.5 million will be distributed in 2019, thanks to a bill that levied a 20 cent tax on each ride, of which ten cents returns to the municipality where the trip originated. The City of Boston will receive close to $3.5M from the tax, and Cambridge, Ma., next in ridership, will net about $678,000.

New revenues may require new thinking: will the public be well served if local governments plow the windfall from the TNC’s (Transportation Network Company) back into local Rideshare?  

Re: Re-thinking?

Windfalls speak loudly so pundits and policy makers might revisit how Rideshare serves their communities. Last year, local officials were surprised to learn  that Uber and Lyft served underprivileged neighborhoods with better service than taxi companies.

The TNCs are often decried to be a source of transportation woes from increased congestion to decreased transit ridership. But, for another point of view, see this article. It’s time to ask what other “common goods” might be furthered by expanding Rideshare.

Historically, proceeds from transportation taxes, like vehicle registration fees and parking fines, plow back into a wide array of municipal priorities. But, what if the 2019 Rideshare revenue is plowed back into Rideshare? Can the TNC windfall be allocated to improve Rideshare, and, coincidentally, elevate other transportation goals?

Rethinking: Drivers and Paratransit Vans

A problem that vexes public transportation officials is the high cost of providing paratransit service. An innovative paratransit trial between the TNCs and the Boston MBTA is said to have dropped the administrative cost per trip from around $45.00 to ~$17.00, but it has also increased the demand from riders for more trips. The riders, who rely on this service for mobility, have a need to keep mobile, and prefer the new offering to the bulky paratransit vans and cars that require several days notice to schedule.

Uber and Lyft currently have some  Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAV) but the fleet size cannot meet the demand.  As I write this blog, mid-day, Thursday, from Cambridge, Ma. it would take approximately 2 minutes and $12.00 for an Uber X vehicle to pick me up for a trip to the airport, but about 10 minutes (and same price) for a WAV.  This is an exception, as trips from Newton and the outer suburbs typically require a wait of 20 minutes or longer.

The obstacles to growing the system have been twofold: an insufficient number of WAV equipped vehicles and a lack of trained drivers. The business model has been evolving though, and in Washington, D.C. Uber  has subcontracted with MV Transportation , a privately owned transport carrier, for both drivers and vehicles. Drivers also receive a bonus for taking these trips.

Thinking back to the windfall: an additional bonus would be set-aside by policy makers,  either to reward the TNC driver, or assist their financial outlay to equip SUVs and vans to accomodate wheelchairs, walkers, and electric scooters.

Meanwhile, taxi providers, who currently receive 5 cents from the 20 cent per/trip tax in Massachusetts, might also restore their fleets and initiate new WAV service, if so-inclined.

Both Taxis and Rideshare vehicles with open seating, may do double purpose. A recent article cited how shared trips can ferry bikers and recreational hikers to out-of-range sites.

Rethinking: Air Quality

Rideshare does not have to be in competition with other transportation modes. In fact, it could significantly and positively impact goals to reduce carbon emissions and air pollution.

TNC revenues (aka, the windfall) could be put towards a vehicle rebate or credit for drivers who drive fully electric vehicles. The credit would be tiered to the number of miles or time that the Rideshare vehicle is in commercial use.

The idea is not novel:  This year London legislators begin a per mile surcharge on Rideshare trips to help drivers over multiple years, switch from diesel to cleaner vehicles.  In the U.S. Lyft announced initiatives to favor greener vehicles, such as adding more to their rental-fleet, and including hybrids in the rider’s choice of vehicle options.

Helping Uber and Lyft drivers acquire electric vehicles should be a win/win for municipalities and drivers. Governments are more likely to achieve their air quality goals and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Drivers favor them because of lower operating costs and fewer repairs.

Meanwhile, another externality, the impugned congestion from Rideshare vehicles, can be tackled. Public service ads need to promote shared Rideshare trips as the social, responsible and efficient choice when transit is not a feasible option.

Rethinking: Senior Training

On a much smaller scale, it happens that I volunteer and teach seniors how to access Rideshare using smartphones. My interest as a volunteer grew out of writing a book called “Aging in Suburbia,” which you can find on Amazon.  I like to tell the students that I developed this Rideshare class in lieu of going on a book tour.

As people choose to age in place, they need transportation alternatives, as their driving skills decline and the costs of keeping a car weigh in.  For older people, Uber and Lyft provide a means to travel safely on bad-weather days or after-dark. They can also be the first and last mile link to public transportation.

We currently teach the Rideshare class with a small army of volunteers and a stack of handouts. A small investment in expanding these classes, perhaps using video and on-line training, would greatly expand the offering. A small investment in education would greatly increase the number of Boomers and Seniors we can reach and keep mobile.

Rethinking: Mind the Curb

Finally, as we imagine what municipalities could fund we should not overlook the curb. To promote Rideshare, curb space needs to be inventoried, signed, and upgraded. These improvements will make Rideshare easier for passengers, and safer for drivers.

Curb-space is the tempest between public and private space. As often noted, the availability of parking meters, on-street parking, and cheap airport parking encourages people to own and drive their own vehicles.

Regulators face a personal challenge here. It is not in their financial interest to reduce on-street parking (e.g., in FY16 Boston collected ~$15.5 in meter fees and ~$57.8 million in parking fines).  But, to accommodate better traffic flow and reduce congestion, as well as make Rideshare safer, curb space needs to be reimagined. So, parking is at the crux of the issue. The good news is that improving Rideshare increases the revenue spun off from the per/trip fee.

Thinking Forward:

Summing up, policy makers and local government seem likely to put new transportation funds to old purposes. Their staffs have long lists of transportation projects that are unfilled and underfunded. So, it takes only a moment to redirect new revenue to existing endeavors.

But, it does not have to be a zero-sum game.

Transportation budgets almost always have allocations for programs that improve air quality, reduce carbon emissions, and increase access for seniors and the handicapped. These are imperatives.

Rideshare supports these initiatives, just in new ways.

The need is to acknowledge that Rideshare is a complement to existing transportation goals, grow it further, and discover better ways to link the resources.

Micro-Mobility Tipping Point? 2020…

Micro-Mobility
Tipping Point for Micro-Mobility?

In 2018 micro-mobility takes place on Limes, Bonzos, and Birds.

In 2000 people travelled on Xebras, Kewet Buddies, and G-Wiz. The Human Transporter, otherwise known as the Segway, came to market in 2001 and  the Velib, the first generation of French bike-share, launched in 2007.

So, while micro-mobility is being reinvented in 2018, it retains a penchant for short perky brand names. And, that reinvention takes place in the shadow of previous start-ups.

This blog is informed by attendance at two Fall 2018 events: a micro-mobility street fair at Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass. followed by a sit-down conference with vendors, government officials, and academics.  I have worked on micro-mobility for over ten years in Los Angeles and based on that experience and the recent conference, make a few observations. It is noteworthy that Kendall Square, the location for these demos, was also the launching pad for a successful transportation technology, the ZipCar, launched in the year 2000.

2000-2018:

Specifically, what has changed since 2000, and will today’s crop of micro-mobility players achieve wider success?  Were the initial failures a function of the technology, the marketplace, regulations, or some combination of these factors? Will these factors repeat, or have there been significant changes in the transportation arena?  

First, we present the issues favoring new growth, and then, the counter arguments.  Note, we do not delve into the business practices or failures of individual companies, for example, Sidecar, which arguably preceded Uber but folded.

An Argument for Micro-Mobilty: What Has Changed in Two Decades

1. RIDESHARE: The most significant advancement for micro-mobility has taken place within  conventional automotives. Uber and Lyft have changed the dynamics of first and last mile travel, and uprooted taxi providers. They have also made it clear that private industry, not public agencies, stand at the forefront of leading change in the transportation field.

Although they only account for two percent of total trip taking today, Uber and Lyft have changed, practically overnight, the perception that it is OK to not have a personal vehicle and rely on your own car for every trip. Per conference speaker Assaf Biderman, a researcher and  founder of Superpedestrian, rideshare has set an important precedent for micro-mobility because 50 percent of trips are 5 miles or less.

2. NEW MARKET: GROWTH of the CHINESE/ INTERNATIONAL VEHICLE:

Tiny cars, like Bonzo, used to be called neighborhood electric vehicles, and have reached only niche markets in the U.S.. That has not been the case overseas. Sales of low-speed small electric cars experienced considerable growth in China due to their affordability and flexibility.  In 2016, China sold over 700,000 units in just ten months. In China these vehicles can be driven without a driver’s license. Demand for tiny electric cars incentivizes better battery technology and recharge options, but also spurs the need to reduce the width of residential zoned traffic lanes- a key issue for safe micro-mobility.

3. ZIPCAR & APPS:  While not a micro-transit service, per se, ZipCar was launched in 2000 and has arguably been the foundation for transportation ventures like rideshare. It has also helped legitimize spin-offs for short-term, on-demand car hire services. Most critically, ZipCar laid the groundwork for smartphone based, app-driven mobile services. There is currently no comprehensive Mobility As a Service  (MaaS) App in the U.S. that integrates the time and location of micro-mobility vehicles with traditional modes but it is under development. MaaS software will help micro-mobility reach new users and become more mainstream with door-to-door trip planning.

4. AUTONOMOUS/ELECTRIC: There has been growing recognition that rideshare was the first wave of disruption in the transportation industry, and the second wave will be even more extreme as autonomous vehicles enter the vehicle mix.  Meanwhile, advancements in electric batteries are making it more likely that the autonomous fleets will be electric, and an electric infrastructure benefits both bikes and scooters.

An Argument Against Micro-Mobility: What has Not Changed Over Two Decades

1. CAR CULTURE: At the Cambridge conference, Josh Westerhold from Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi made a compelling case that personal transportation (i.e. car ownership) is not driven by efficiency. Meanwhile, automotive marketing is the largest category of advertising and topped $47 billion worldwide in 2015. For the near future, the automobile industry will continue to promote the desirability of single vehicle ownership, and there will continue to be high levels of vehicle ownership, on the order of 8 cars for every 10 Americans.

2. REGULATION/RULE MAKING: Although Uber and Lyft have been disruptive to the taxi industry, state and local governments have been slow to react and resolve entirely new issues like curb space, driver screening, and sidewalk sharing. Curb space and public safety are also vital issues for micro mobility. At the Cambridge conference, Joseph Barr, the Cambridge Director of Traffic, Parking and Transportation, observed that cities will need to rebalance their budgets as micro mobility reduces revenue from traditional sources like road taxes and parking.

3. WEATHER:  While climate change has often been a rallying cry for micro mobility, more immediate climate issues have not been fully factored. While small cars, like  Bonzo, offer some protection from inclement weather, it is not clear that they will operate on ice or snow. We do not know if regular commuters will rethink taking a scooter or bicycle when the weather turns inclement or cold.

4. DELIVERIES: Although cars sit idle 95% of day, vehicle owners rationalize the need for one because  they are a necessity for moving packages, groceries, and shuttling children around. To reduce the need for cars and trip generation, alternative means for package delivery and family space need to spring up.

5. DEMOGRAPHICS:  Finally, the audience at the Cambridge conference seemed to rally around a particular problem:  today’s micro-mobility options favor younger people, and particularly those who are single and without families. The emphasis on electric scooters, dock-less bicycles, and repurposing sidewalks does not serve other age groups, and in particular the elderly.

Save Our Sidewalks” or SOS as the Bird speaker, Hannah Smith quipped, requires the company to place ‘bird watchers’ in the field and work with municipalities to achieve better, safe, shared streets. The promise of micro mobility is not so new, but the problems (and potential)  it brings are not necessarily ones that were anticipated by existing, on-the-shelf, transportation master plans.

Will Waze Carpool App Slow Down Uber?


Waze App for Carpools
Waze Carpool App   https://www.waze.com/carpool

Smartphones have accelerated travel information…notifications of real-time traffic, on-demand transit, and, of course, rideshare. But, can a smartphone app crack carpooling?  Waze, a Google subsidiary, developed a carpool app that will look familar to rideshare users, with features like driver name, cost, and arrival time.  Waze is now taking that app nationwide and providing incentives for new signups.

Carpooling has been the transportation “nut” that smartphones have not pried open.  In Los Angeles and most other US cities, only about eight or nine percent of commuters choose to carpool despite numerous campaigns.  I personally worked on TDM (transportation demand management) in Los Angeles and observed carpools to be the “high hanging fruit.”  (editorial  note:  nuts can be fruits)

CARPOOLS: THE HIGH HANGING FRUIT

Why?    First, the ‘real’ number of carpools is inflated and considerably less than the census numbers state. Today’s carpool count includes drivers who ride with a family member, or drop their children off at school. The drivers can legitimately say that they have a passenger, get counted in the surveys, and gain access to faster carpool lanes. But, they are not picking up a casual acquaintance or stranger.  

Carpooling can be inconvenient for a driver who might have to detour during peak-traffic to pick up or drop off passengers. It has been awkward for the driver and passenger to set a price and exchange fees.

HOW WAZE COULD HELP:

In principle, a Waze app could shift the balance.


The missing component for carpooling is the ability to establish trust between strangers.  Hitchhiking fails because strangers meet up with no prior information. An app can close the gap by providing a strongly enforced rating mechanism, like the one pushed to riders and driver after each trip on Uber or Lyft.

Prior to smartphones, there was no systematic, real-time way for riders and drivers to establish trust.  Taxi drivers were considered trustworthy because they were screened through livery boards and medallions. Limo drivers and mini-cabs in the U.K. were subject to similar checks. It is important to note that taxis, limos, and mini-cab drivers all have commercial insurance. Uber and Lyft drivers do too once they secure a passenger trip.

To establish similar levels of trust, a robust carpool app may need to certify that the driver’s DMV driving record and insurance information check-out. Then, passengers will know that they will be riding with a responsible driver in a safe vehicle.

TIME IS OF MATTER AND MORE:

Both time and distance matter for would-be carpools. Here, Waze travel information could play a crucial role. Although detouring to pick up a rider a few blocks away might seem simple there could be significant delays for the driver depending on the roads, time of day, and traffic. The algorithms used by Uber and Lyft account for these issues when they match a driver and passenger. Carpooling apps can use the same tools to minimize the inconvenience for the driver, and keep the passenger informed as the ride approaches.

Second, smartphones plus credit cards solve the monetary transaction that needs to take place between driver and passenger. The passenger does not have to “split the gas” or “share the tolls.” No cash needs to be exchanged. Having a pre-established billing system reduces the uncertainty between strangers and builds trust (#1).

Something that is exogenous,  future increase in gas prices, may serve as an incentive to carpool.  However, transportation researchers have found,  that the travel time saved by using HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes is also an incentive, and as more users carpool, these designated lanes became less productive.

PLUSES OR MINUSES?

That said, will the Waze app become as popular as Uber or Lyft, or will there be drawbacks?

  • Unless drivers arrange the carpool before they get in their vehicle, there will be even more reliance by  casual drivers using smartphones in traffic. Mobile phones are an increasing source of driver distraction, and there is mixed evidence, pro and con, of whether hands-free devices are safer.  Potentially, vehicle accidents could increase, but the app can help identify the safest drivers. 
  •  In a personal vehicle, the norms are fuzzy:  Some drivers may have difficulty speaking up about the house-rules and some passengers will flaunt them anyway. A carpool rating system may restore the balance, but because the rating system will be slower (a given driver makes only two or three trips a day) the driver might exit the entire system before there is an adequate feedback loop.  
  • Finally, this may be the most important reason why the carpool app will need time to grow:  “Drivers are turned inward”. The driver is transporting strangers in their personal car. For many, this vehicle is their largest purchase and most prized possession. Millions of dollars have been spent on advertising to remind car owners that “vehicles=freedom + identity + well-being.” 

So, until further notice, the decision to carpool could be overruled by the opportunity to make unannounced stops, do a drive-through for food, and have a sanctuary between the home and office.  It will just depend!

Curious why you see fewer posts here at GrayHomesGreenCars? Follow the  smartphone- centric blog at dearsmartphone.com and join in the discussion!

Rideshare As Niche Transit? (Nice!)

Rideshare and Transit Working Well
Rideshare and Transit as Partners

Can transit be a contender in the race for ‘first-mile last-mile’ and niche travel?  Transit doesn’t have a short, sexy name, like Lime or Bird, but transit does have room to grow if you pair it with rideshare. 

This past week I attended a short workshop held by the Massachusetts  Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) called a ‘Ride-Hailing Parternships Forum. The program showcased local  institutions that have partnered with Uber and Lyft .  It was an interesting weave of legacy  transportation and  the upstarts.  Here are observations, and in italics  my comments (JG).  While I have tried to be journalistically accurate, it is still a good idea to check with the workshop coordinator  before quoting.

Niche 1: Rideshare Goes Where Transit Does…But Faster

The Boston region has an older but extensive commuter-rail and bus network so in principle you don’t have to own a vehicle, even if you live in the outer suburbs. However, getting from one locale to another can be exceedingly slow if the travel trip requires connections or transfers. Northshore Community College had difficulty getting students to campus within a reasonable travel time as the classrooms, and campus services were spread over different locales (think of a triangle: public transit often had students traveling the right angle).

The Community College found a solution: they provide enrolled students with access to a rideshare business account. It has a cap of $10.00 per trip and travel is limited to commutes.  Northshore no longer operates a shuttle bus at an annual cost of nearly $100,000, and students seem to reach their classes with less travel time. This means that the campus can recruit from a larger area, retain students who have a family or work a second job, and not make car ownership seem like a prerequisite for getting an education.

JG: From a birds-eye view, rideshare is expanding the transit network in the greater Boston area. Over time, it may help to fine-tune it, and even reduce the number of low-performing bus routes (see Niche #4 below too). A larger question for land-user planners is how to locate future facilities, like a community college, closer to the main lines.

Niche 2: Rideshare Lowers the Cost of Paratransit and Makes Riders Happy

The Ride, which is the paratransit operation of the MBTA, had a purported annual budget in 2016 of  ~ $100 million.  Around 2016  they partnered with Uber and Lyft, and encouraged ambulatory passengers to take rideshare instead of the usual paratransit trip. Each rideshare trip trip would be subsidized, but could not exceed a cap.  What began as a pilot proved to be a win-win for passengers: they said they preferred arriving in Uber or Lyft instead of big, lumbering vans or Ride branded vehicles; they did not have to pre-book for travel often three or four days in advance; and they seemed to enjoy participating in high-tech mobility.

The  travel outcomes are surprising and important.  According to a RIDE spokesman: the pilot reduced the RIDE’s cost the per cost trip from $41.00  to just $17.00. That is a 59 percent decrease. However, it also fueled the number of trips “ordered” by eligible customers by nearly 46 percent.

There have been a few other bumps on the service road. Many  passengers resist taking pooled trips. And, a few Uber and Lyft drivers have been resistant to accommodating  service dogs. The stickiest and most challenging issue seems to be providing a sufficient supply of WAV  (wheel chair accessible vehicles).

JG: Perhaps one of the most vital aspects, still to be measured, is whether both the mental and physical health of RIDE passengers is improved. Does new- found mobility improve the quality of life and are their benefits from the opportunity to be more socially, culturally, and physically active?

Niche 3: Rideshare is the New Link to Medical Care:

It is often cited that 30 percent of patients miss their medical appointments because they cannot get to the doctor . Whether that percentage is too large is debatable (patients might want to cancel for other reasons), but the no-show numbers are staggering.

The Needham Community Council, a private non-profit social service agency tackled the issue several years ago when their Executive Director saw a decline in the number of volunteer drivers. She was the first to identify Rideshare as a back-stop for patients who had difficulty reaching medical services, and went on to negotiate business contracts with both Uber and Lyft (she currently uses only Lyft).  Since her older office staff lacked the facility to dispatch rides with smartphones, the council reverted to summoning rideshare trips via voice calls like the Go Go Grandparent  service.

The Needham service currently averages about thirty-five trips a month at an average cost of $8.00 per ride.  Although each trip is completely subsidized, the council discovered a soft touch so that about 25% of the riders to contribute to the cost of travel. Meanwhile, local hospitals and charities also make small financial contributions.

JG: The Needham program is noteworthy, not only because it was a first in health-care travel, but because it continues to be sustainable. Although many larger corporate players are moving into this space this is an example of how a small grassroots program can do the job well, and make up for the lack of volunteer drivers.

Niche 4: Rideshare is the Missing Link in the Transit Schedule

Bus service is not 24/7 but the needs of riders can be,  particularly on weekends, holidays, and after 6 pm.  With limited service evening riders are stranded along with those working night shifts and low paying service jobs.  In fact, to work a low paying job at night or weekends, you might need have to own a car. The problem is particularly acute in low-density, sprawling suburbs, where workers are more likely to be able to afford to live.

The Greater Attleboro-Taunton Regional Transit Authority (GATRA) operates fixed bus route service from  6 am to 6:30 pm weekdays, and Saturdays, 9 am to 5 pm. To meet the needs of their ‘under resourced’ riders,  community leaders  banded together to provide an alternative. They tapped into an existing transit grant of $30,000 and used the local YMCA as a lead. Now, riders who are opted-in by any of the community leaders (there are currently ten of them) get access to rideshare  outside of the narrow transit service window.

Other regional transit agencies are beginning to investigate the feasibility of this niche service, particularly for routes where headways are long and ridership is sparse (often a confounding problem).

JG: In an interesting twist of data analysis, origin/destination/ and time of day data from Uber and Lyft  might reveal where future bus service is warranted. It has generally been observed in other cities that the highest level of rideshare growth has been in the evenings and on weekends. 

—–

In our earlier blog, we observed that regulators are quick to jump on the bandwagon to tax the rideshare companies and blame them for increased traffic congestion and reduced transit ridership. In fact, an earlier publication by MAPC, whether correctly interpreted or not, led to the headline that Uber and Lyft were pulling people off public transit and putting them in traffic .

The MAPC workshop, yet organized by regulators, suggests there might be a softening and second look at entirely new and niche travel behaviors.