Can Uber Provide Transit Service? Valdosta May Be Getting Ready to Find Out

Two major challenges that limit the expanded use of public transit could be solved by ride sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft. In urban areas such as Atlanta, rail stations or bus stops don’t get the passenger all the way to their destination. This “last mile” problem discourages passengers from using transit, especially in inclement weather. In suburban or rural areas, demand for transit may be so low that transit operators cannot economically schedule bus service that meets passenger needs.

In Atlanta, MARTA and Uber formed a partnership two years ago to promote last mile connectivity. MARTA riders can quickly access the Uber app from the MARTA app on their phones, and MARTA riders who are first time Uber riders can get their first ride free via a coupon code. More recently, Uber expressed its support for the proposed MARTA expansion Atlanta voters will decide on this fall.

What may be a more interesting concept is transit agencies paying the Uber fare, or a portion of it, for individuals who are not served by a bus line. This approach, called ridesourcing, is under consideration in Valdosta and Lowndes County. Right now, the county uses eight passenger vans for on-demand transit. Passengers must schedule a ride 24 hours in advance, and pay $3.00 for trips up to ten miles. This is similar to how most paratransit services for the disabled work. Because of growth in the county, Valdosta and Lowndes are considering expanding transit offerings to include regularly scheduled bus service. The Southern Georgia Regional Commission, which serves Lowndes County, held an open house last week to present the results of its transit implementation study.

After analyzing alternatives, including traditional fixed route bus lines, the study recommended ridesourcing or a combination of a small fixed route system plus ridesourcing as preferred alternatives. Ridesourcing could be implemented quickly, and the two recommended fixed routes to core areas could be added as funds allowed. The proposed ridesourcing plan would let riders within a defined area take Uber to get to their destination. The first $3.00 of the fare would be paid for by the county, while the remainder would be the responsibility of the rider.

The study also had these recommendations for leveraging ridesourcing:

Top: Proposed fixed route service. Bottom: Proposed Ridesource service area.
Top: Proposed fixed route service. Bottom: Proposed Ridesource service area. The blue rectangle shows the area of the top map.

The Valdosta‐Lowndes County community must also learn from other communities experience with ridesourcing. As a rapidly evolving area, it can be difficult and require a community to be bold and innovating in their approach. In developing a relationship with a ridesourcing firm, there are a few best practices that can be helpful. First, the local agency could benefit from negotiating a piggyback clause into their contract. A piggybacking clause would allow other agencies in Georgia to benefit from the same terms and conditions in the Valdosta‐Lowndes County contract. By entering into an agreement with a piggybacking clause, the local community may be able to enter into a more competitive agreement with a ridesourcing company.It is also important that the contract with the ridesourcing company includes a marketing requirement. In the Pinellas County case study provided earlier in this document, PSTA negotiated an agreement that ensured that the ridesourcing company provided marketing support for the new service. The ridesourcing company sent text messages to its current customers in the affected area announcing its service. The company also dispatched a representative to talk to current PSTA customers at its transit facility being served by the ridesourcing company.

In addition to ridesourcing being a less expensive solution than traditional fixed route bus service, it also offers the possibility of a larger service area. The top map above shows the study’s proposed fixed route system. In the bottom map, the yellow area shows the ridesourcing service area. Because the maps are not drawn tol the same scale, the rectangle in the bottom map shows the size of the top one. Another advantage of the ridesourcing model is that there are minimal capital costs. There is no need to maintain a fleet of vehicles, since they would be owned by the drivers working for the rideshare services.

Of course, there are potential downsides as well. The system does not own the vehicles, nor does it employ the drivers, so there is no way to guarantee that rides will be available at all times. If an insufficient number of cars are available to meet demand, passengers may be subject to a higher fare due to surge pricing. And of course, it doesn’t work to get cars off of the road.

Nonetheless, it’s a way to think outside of the box to solve a transportation need. Near Orlando, the city of Altamonte Springs began a ridesourcing program back in March. Initial results appear positive, although it’s too soon for serious evaluation. Tampa’s Hillsborough County and Clearwater’s Pinellas County each started new ridesourcing services earlier this year. Before too long, we will find out if ridesourcing can be a positive contributor to transit options.

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