Ride-hailing: friend or foe to public transportation?

Experts debate whether private companies like Uber have role to play in transit services

An illuminated 3D map outlining TransLink’s 30-year plan is displayed at last week’s Rail-Volution conference in Vancouver | Rob Kruyt

Don’t be surprised if, when regulated ride-hailing services at last enter B.C., the sight of these vehicles rolling into bus stops and disrupting transit service becomes a common occurrence.

It already happens frequently enough in other communities in North America, according to Jim Gough, manager of transportation planning for WSP Canada Group Inc.

“They really are moving into transit’s territory even more,” the Toronto-based transportation expert said September 11 while speaking at a panel at the Rail-Volution transit conference held in Vancouver.

Gough was referring specifically to broader trends, such as curbside pickup services.

But it begs the question as to whether ride-hailing services pose a risk to transit’s future or if they can fill in some of the gaps, particularly by solving the first-mile, last-mile problem of getting to and from transit stations.

In Phoenix, bus ridership has fallen 11% since 2014, according to Hannah Quinsey, a planner with that area’s Valley Metro Regional Public Transportation Authority.

She said multiple factors beyond the rise of ride-hailing come into play, such as Phoenix gas prices falling to pre-recession-era levels, which has in turn led to a rise in personal car ownership.

But Quinsey also noted during the same panel as Gough’s that ridership on the local light-rail service has risen 5% during that same period.

“We have a lot of area to serve with fixed-route [transit options] and some of the areas just aren’t used as much as others,” she said.

“We have to admit that there are gaps.”

Valley Metro has been embracing pilot programs in which a broker partners with Uber Technologies Inc. (NYSE:UBER) and Lyft Inc. (Nasdaq:LYFT) to address some of those first-mile, last-mile problems plaguing transportation authorities.

One such pilot allows commuters to use a single app to plan and pay for an entire trip that would encompass both transit and a Lyft ride to get them to their final destination.

Meanwhile, Valley Metro’s Ride Choice program has been offering seniors and people with disabilities on-demand rides through a broker that dispatches taxis. When Lyft rides were integrated with RideChoice, Quinsey said, 80% of those trips migrated to the ride-hailing service “almost overnight” because of popular demand.

Uber has since joined the program, and Quinsey said her agency has been able to find cost savings with programs incorporating these services.

“We’re not taking the approach that TNCs [transportation network companies] are our competitors,” she said, referring to ride-hailing services by a technical term.

But Simon Berrebi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology specializing in transportation operations, said there are risks involved if transit authorities cede too much to ride-hailing providers.

He said authorities have two core missions.

The most basic obligation is to provide services to people who have no other means of transportation; authorities also have a broader obligation to provide a wider portion of the population with a wide array of trips.

“But if you’re not providing a way for people who can’t afford Uber and Lyft [to use] the service, then what’s the point?” he asked.

“The idea transit agencies can slide away from their core mission is a slippery slope.”

torton@biv.com

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