How Will Transportation Apps Affect Mass Transit?

How are ridesharing and other types innovative transportation technologies changing the world of mass transportation?

The first panel discussion at the Eno Center’s March 24 Convergence examined this question through discussion with representatives of technology companies, local transit interests, and facilitators:

(Ed. Note: Uber and Lyft, with which most people are familiar, are two of several taxi-like services accessed through smartphones. RideScout is a mobile app that tries to show users the estimated time and cost of getting from point A to point B within a metro area in any mode – their own car, bus, train, rideshare, bikeshare, etc. Via is on-demand ride share at a flat $5 rate currently available in Manhattan and in downtown Chicago.)

Feigon began by discussing the preliminary results of a new study that her organization conducted with the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) which identified the peak ride-sharing hours as being the opposite of peak transit ridership hours. The report also identified tremendous potential for the use of ridesharing technology in the field of paratransit. (ETW’s full coverage of that study is here.)

As the corporate representatives were summarizing the work of their companies, Papandreou remarked on how fast the new technologies were transforming transportation in urban areas. He said that in 2012, 62 percent of all passenger trips in San Francisco were people driving their own car, and their goal was to get that down to 50 percent by 2018. But through the rapid march of technology, the 50 percent goal was achieved in 2015.

Panelists reached quick agreement on the ultimate goal of fully integrated and interoperable software across all modes of transportation. Castor said that Los Angeles is taking the first step, with its GoLA app, a “mobility marketplace” that shows users estimated point A to point B ride times for subway, bus, light rail, personal car (including the real-time availability and price of parking), walking, bikeshare, ZipCar, and Lyft – and allows users to access many of those choices. (Not Uber, as Salzberg said they have not shared their API software with LA yet but are working on it.)

However, the GoLA app does not yet have the ability to process payments for all of the modes. Panandreaou said that there are data and privacy protection issues as well as the problem of having public and private payment on the same platform. In addition, he said that many companies that are still in their initial growth phase have trouble sharing proprietary information with public agencies, which hampers interoperability.

Papandreou also said that a fundamental problem with transit providers is that they think in terms of moving passengers from transit stop to transit stop, not from point A to point B, and if people can’t figure out how to get from point A to point B using transit, they won’t use transit.

The discussion then turned to the ability of underserved communities to access these new technologies. The consensus on the panel seemed to be that while these new technologies are indeed bringing new access to transportation to underserved geographic areas, the ability to access the technology is limited to certain types of people within those economic areas. Salzberg proudly pointed out that average Uber pickup times in the Bronx are now down to 5 minutes, which is a tremendous improvement over the notoriously shoddy taxi service there.

However, Salzberg and other panelists acknowledged the problems with all the new transit tech apps requiring ownership of a smartphone and some sort of bank account or credit card, which is a problem in areas where large numbers of people are “unbanked.” In particular, he pointed out that elderly people who can no longer drive are a huge, underserved market that are ripe for on-demand service like Uber and Lyft if they can solve the access hurdles.

Several panelists also noted the possibilities for integrating these new shared mobility services into transit agencies in two areas. The “last mile” between a person’s home and the transit stop – particularly, as Castor pointed out, in areas where it is inefficient to run a bus that only has 3 or 4 regular riders per hour – could be integrated with on-demand rideshare services. And Wasserman said that paratransit (as the SUMC study indicated) is a mode that is currently failing stakeholders but which could be addressed by the use of ridesharing, particularly for users who don’t need wheelchairs.

An audience member from Greenville, South Carolina asked how these technologies could address mid-sized areas facing rapid population growth. Salzberg pointed out that Uber now has market presence in areas as small as Amherst, Massachusetts and that there is a lot of potential for ride-sharing and other on-demand transportation solutions in mid-sized areas. Papandreou added that any metro area facing sharp population growth needs to start reducing parking areas and increasing pick-up and drop-off areas for ridesharing as soon as possible. He also recommended that they work with the developers of new apartment and condominium buildings to include the provision of transit passes in their condo fees.

Another attendee asked about the infrastructure needs on the city’s side (not on the vehicle’s side) for these new technologies. Castor again mentioned more curb access and more access to shared and carpool lanes for shared-use app travel. Clewlow also noted that even a significant increase in the use of shared-use vehicles could still result in a sharp net increase in total vehicle miles-traveled (a concern aired on other panels as well).

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