Guest Op-Ed: Agency-TNC Partnership Provides One Model for Improving Universal Access to Transit

Transit agencies have increasingly been partnering with technology firms to create services that better serve the many people affected by mobility impairment. In some instances, private firms deliver first-mile service to transit stations that meet or exceed accessibility goals, as described in Eno’s recent report, Toward Universal Access: A Case Study in the Los Angeles and Puget Sound Regions. In other cases, such as in Marin County’s Connect2Transit program, the technology platforms have worked with agencies to develop a single app for all available services on the network that allow direct comparison of public and private transportation options for riders of all abilities.

The State of California’s 2018 TNC Access for All Act requires “a program relating to accessibility for persons with disabilities” in the regulatory oversight of transportation network companies (TNCs). The law aims to increase on-demand mobility access for the disability community by requiring TNCs to provide accessible services for people with disabilities, including those requiring wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs), through their app-based platforms.

In keeping with the goals of the Access for All Act, a partnership between Marin County agencies and TNC Uber provides one innovative model for future public-private collaboration on transit services for riders with physical disabilities. Marin’s Connect2Transit integrates on-demand WAV services into a single mobile platform with other transportation options, including non-WAV transit services and available Uber alternatives.

The concept for the on-demand ride hailing service was first developed through a partnership between Marin County Transit District (Marin Transit) and The Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM). In October of 2019, the agencies launched a joint request for proposals in search of an MOD software provider. The agencies’ goal was to find a private-sector partner that could integrate a range of mobility options into a single software platform, thereby testing a new model for public-private mobility partnerships. The contract was awarded to Uber, who set out to create a seamless user experience for all riders while satisfying the requirements of the ADA.

The new service replaces Marin Transit Connect, a pilot service previously provided by partners Marin Transit and another TNC, Via, that offered fully accessible MOD services for Marin County seniors and transit users with disabilities. TAM’s $5-off first-mile/last-mile incentive program connecting riders to and from Marin County SMART stations was also incorporated into the new Connect2Transit service.

With multiple services integrated into a single platform, Connect2Transit expands mobility options for all transit users and provides discounts for trips to transit hubs. In-app customer service features enable riders to provide driver feedback and request refunds. Riders also have the options to request a ride over the phone and pay for fares with cash.

Connect2Transit makes several improvements over the previous Marin Connect service. It provides a single app for all users, regardless of ability, that shows a side-by-side comparison of price and length of ride for all available services, including options for accessible transportation. Previously, Marin Connect customers needed to use separate apps to access transit-provided and mainstream MOD services. The new app platform features a “Marin Connect” option within the Uber app, replacing the separate Marin Transit app used by the pilot service. Of the services included in the new app, public transit, Marin Connect, and UberPool all offer WAV options.

Marin Transit maintains control of service parameters such as price, hours of operation, and service area. Instead of charging a booking fee for each ride, Uber collects payment from Marin Transit through a monthly subscription fee for the use of the platform, enabling rider fares to be collected directly by the agency. TAM has partnered with the County of Marin and Kaiser Permanente, two of the area’s largest employers, to subsidize employee commute trips.

Connect2Transit represents Uber’s first venture into providing software-as-a-service (SaaS) to a public transit agency as well as a step toward expanding transportation options for seniors and the disability community. However, challenges remain regarding the provision of equitable and accessible service through technology-enabled transportation programs.

Although TNCs have been operating for some time, these kinds of public-private partnerships are new and relatively untested from an operational and regulatory perspective. Several agencies have participated in pilot partnerships with TNCs and other private companies to test the potential for integration of transit and mobility on demand (MOD) services. Eno’s recent report describes the ways in which two partnerships served as a testing ground on which to establish operational and performance goals for more inclusive and equitable transportation service.

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