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.