Guest Op-Ed: Disruption in Mass Transit Calls for Disruption in Public Policy

February 22, 2019

The world of mass transit is currently in a state of disruption. Nationally, transit ridership is declining as technology and private industry are disrupting traditional forms of mobility options, sometimes making public transportation a less desirable option. Complicating matters further, the federal government is investing less while its regulations make it harder for transit agencies to be as innovative as the changing industry. For public transit to remain a viable transportation option in the digital age, our federal, state and local governments and transit agencies must adapt or fall to the tidal wave of change.

Many blame ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft for the nationwide decrease in transit ridership. Given our current transportation models, that may be true. However, I believe these new services offer an opportunity to enhance transit and create a new ecosystem of interconnected multimodal options where ride-hailing and transit work together to provide cost-efficient and environmentally friendlier commutes.

This idea is echoed in a study by the Transit Cooperative Research Program at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine that found Lyft and Uber are not ultimately replacing public transit. “Use of services like Uber and Lyft tended to spike on weekends and late in the evenings when transit service tends to be scaled back.” This means that ride-hailing services can be a complement to traditional transit. In Southern Nevada, we agree and have partnered with Lyft on two pilot programs that are meeting customer needs and saving taxpayer dollars.

The RTC first partnered with Lyft for our Ride On-Demand pilot program that offers more than 200 paratransit, veteran and certification customers a same-day, on-demand transportation option. Customers receive more flexible service by being able to hail a ride within minutes – all without increasing passenger costs.

To ensure the highest quality of service, Lyft educates its drivers on how to assist passengers with collapsible wheelchairs as well as low-vision and hard-of-hearing clients. Customers can easily schedule rides through the Lyft app, and those without access to a smartphone or who require a wheelchair accessible vehicle can call RTC Customer Care to request a ride via the program.

We recently reached our one-year mark on this program, and more than 16,600 trips have been booked, with 80 percent of rides booked via the Lyft app. In addition, the partnership with Lyft yields a 52 percent savings in operating costs for the RTC – nearly $320,000 – while also significantly reducing wait times and improving service.

While wait times in general decreased, there was a disparity between the wait times via Lyft for a wheelchair-accessible vehicle versus a non-accessible vehicle. To reduce the wait time for wheelchair-accessible vehicles and thus, ensure compliance with the strict equity requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we added a second partner, Tango, resulting in increased program costs. Unfortunately, similar challenges to adhere to strict ADA equity regulations have forced other agencies to discontinue promising pilot programs. To reap the full benefit of innovative partnerships that better serve the needs of customers while saving taxpayer dollars, more flexibility from the federal government regarding ADA requirements is necessary.

Not only is flexibility critical from the federal government, but it’s also crucial within transit agencies as we look at solving challenges facing transit. For example, partnerships can bridge transit service gaps, such as first- and last-mile connectivity.

In November, the RTC launched a second partnership with Lyft, a workforce mobility pilot program that enables employees at a workplace not currently served by transit to use the ride-hailing service from nearby transit stops to their jobs. Lyft provides these rides at a reduced rate, the RTC subsidizes $1 per trip, and the employer, sports merchandise giant Fanatics, pays for the remaining cost.

After the first three months of the program, we are very encouraged by employee feedback and the program’s success. In total, employees have taken more than 650 Lyft rides from 13 designated bus stops along six transit routes. These rides equate to more than 1,500 miles (on average more than 2.3 miles per trip) that employees would have walked to and from bus stops. Feedback is so positive, Fanatics has received inquiries from colleagues throughout the country about replicating the program. Following the end of the six-month pilot, the RTC and Lyft will explore the possibility of bundled transit and shared-ride monthly passes for eligible participants.

As mobility options and customer preferences evolve, the traditional ways of providing transit need to evolve too. Our goal is to ensure that we are building an ecosystem of mobility options that address the needs of our residents and visitors. Partnerships like these can make transit a more viable and accessible commuting option in the digital age. However, federal funding for private / public partnerships is essential, and we need to identify and support flexible policies that provide additional opportunities for testing new approaches.  Working together, we can ensure that transit continues to offer a lower cost and more environmentally friendly transportation option.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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