3 ways Uber and Lyft are helping us re-examine public transit

Thu, 2017-11-16 12:32 -- Kevin Ebi

App-based ride-hailing services have certainly disrupted the way we get around cities and that disruption has proven to be positive in a number of ways, cleaner air among them. But as cities need to get more creative to find ways of helping their ever-growing numbers of citizens to their destinations in a timely manner, is there anything they can learn from the services?

Three professors at the University of Texas at Austin say there is. In an article they wrote for The Conversation, they look at why people use services like Lyft and Uber and what cities can do to help public transit meet those needs. We’ve highlighted three lessons below.

The nutshell is this: ride-hailing operators are successful because they’ve risen to fill gaps in service. Understanding those gaps will help you find solutions to your city’s mobility issues. — Kevin Ebi

1. Fill the gaps
Many American cities are the victims of sprawl. While European cities are dense allowing for a compact transit network to reach a great number of people, American cities tend to be spread out resulting in transit deserts where there is limited or no service.

There are solutions. A long-term solution is to encourage land-use planning policies that fill those gaps with more people and businesses, making it easier to build a return on a transit investment.

But the authors also suggest some creative solutions — such as school buses. They’re parked most of the day. What if there was a way to use them when they aren’t carrying children to provide service in areas that your regular transit operations don’t reach?

2. Time of day can also be a gap
The professors find that Lyft and Uber are rarely a substitute for transit. Rather, one of the largest groups of people to use the ride-hailing services are regular transit riders. When they use the ride-hailing services, it’s typically for social purposes.

They’re out with friends late on a Friday or Saturday night. Maybe they don’t feel safe riding transit then. Maybe the transit is designed for the 9-to-5 work-day crowd and there aren’t a lot of options at the time. Both are issues to consider.

But that may also be a group that traditional transit can’t win over at those times. Part of that social experience is traveling together.

3. It’s ultimately about convenience
If there’s one word that describes why people use the app-based service is probably convenience. You can book a custom trip on an app. You can go exactly where you want, when you want. You know when the ride will show up. That’s not something that can be scaled, right?

Actually, to a certain extent it can. Council Associate Partner Ford has launched its Chariot service in several cities, including New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Austin. Chariot buses operate on a fixed route, but people can use an app to book where they want to get on and off.  Chariot is an interesting hybrid service that gives people more flexibility while still pooling costs over a larger group of people.

Ride-hailing services have thrived by delivering services when and where others don’t. By leveraging data and creatively using resources, transit agencies can better serve the public by helping to close some of those gaps themselves.