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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 ~$21.00*, 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.

*Pilot Financial Overview – Public Presentation to MAPC by MBTA . Based on 1,168 tides. October, 2018.