Edited by Eric Jaffe.
Uber was not Plan A.
Plan A was called Greenlight Pinellas, a 2014 transit referendum that would have created a one-cent sales tax to fund public transportation in Pinellas County, Florida. The Pinellas Suncoast Transportation Authority (PSTA) promoted Greenlight as a sustainable, congestion-relieving solution to the transportation needs of the rapidly growing, mostly suburban region on the state’s Gulf Coast. Going into the vote, transit boosters were excited about the possibilities of $130 million more in annual revenue going toward improved and expanded bus routes as well as a 24-mile light-rail connector between St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Then the referendum failed, and badly. Some 62 percent of voters cast ballots against the tax. Instead of being able to expand service and attract more riders, transit planners now needed to cut bus routes with low ridership. Five of the agency’s 43 routes were proposed for elimination, to the consternation of people who depended on the buses to access jobs and services.
That’s when planners at the PSTA started looking at using Uber, along with local taxi and paratransit services, as a potential alternative. In February 2016, the agency launched a pilot program that is entering its third phase in April 2018, when people throughout the county will be able to get partially subsidized Uber or taxi rides to or from a network of fixed stops that connect to PSTA’s core bus routes. It is among the most advanced examples of “micro-transit” in action: a fleet of smaller vehicles feeding into the traditional system while reducing costs and expanding access to the area.
Pinellas County, like many places around North America, is facing steep challenges when it comes to figuring out how best to meet the transportation needs of its residents and workers. Declining transit ridership on less-frequent routes, ever-tighter municipal and county budgets, increasing traffic congestion, and widely dispersed job centers — all of it means the old models aren’t working the way they used to. At the same time, a growing number of new mobility services is enabling local leaders to consider new options.
“Across the United States and the world, transportation is changing so quickly and dynamically,” says Brad Miller, chief executive officer of the PSTA. “Transit’s role and the way transit operates needs to change. We in Pinellas County don’t have a single employment center. The question is, How can we use transit to serve such a spread-out county with a limited source of funds?”
PSTA is far from the only transit agency looking to ride-hail services such as Uber or Lyft for help, although it was among the first. In big cities such as New York, these services are often seen as a threat to transit ridership and a contributor to congestion (although research into whether those concerns are justified is only in its early phases). In smaller markets, however, ride-hailing companies are increasingly viewed as potential complements to transit, and collaborations with local agencies have emerged in Summit, New Jersey, Centennial, Colorado, Innisfil, Ontario, Altamonte Springs, Florida, and other places across North America.
It’s all very new — most of these pilots were launched in 2016 or later — and it’s unclear just how effective these partnerships will prove to be. Still, Miller thinks the shift to a more multimodal system could, and should, be a radical one, even if high-capacity vehicles such as buses will always be the best solution for certain routes. He says a flexible approach will enable chronically underfunded transit systems to continue serving everyone who depends on public transportation to get to work, school, shopping, or wherever else they want to go.
“Transit systems are changing to mobility managers,” he says. “We’re not focused on just buses or just transit. We’re focused on the best way we can get our citizens from point A to point B, whether it’s on a regular bus or a bike-share or Uber or Lyft. That’s getting toward this idea of mobility as a service, where I wouldn’t necessarily own a car, but instead pay a monthly mobility fee.”
Connecting to Core Bus Routes
After the defeat of the transit tax at the polls, PSTA officials knew they were going to have to get creative if they were going to be able to keep providing service to riders on less-traveled routes. They were interested in the example of a program the University of Florida student association had experimented with in Gainesville, paying for half of students’ Uber rides within a geofenced area around campus on weekend nights so that they wouldn’t have to drive when they might be out partying. “We looked at that model and how could we get that to apply to our area,” says Bonnie Epstein, transit planner for the PSTA.
One of the bus routes on the chopping block — indeed, it later got cut — was a circulator in the city of Pinellas Park, one of the county’s most densely populated centers. The bus only ran once every two hours, and ridership was very low, leading to an operating cost of roughly $55 per passenger-trip. (For context, the agency’s most heavily used routes have an average cost of between $1 and $3 per passenger-trip.)
Starting in February of 2016, the PSTA set up a system called Direct Connect in the area served by that bus. Riders could hail an Uber through the smartphone app --- or call a local taxi or paratransit provider. To ensure the service complemented rather than competed with local transit, the rides had to go to or from a couple of fixed locations, including the Pinellas Park Transit Center, where they could connect to multiple PSTA buses with frequent service. PSTA covered 50 percent of the cost, up to $3. Involving the local taxi company and wheelchair-accessible paratransit vehicles meant that riders didn't need smartphones to access Direct Connect, and that riders with disabilities would also be included.
The agency got a lot of positive press from the pilot, but it wasn't without its difficulties, beginning with the negotiations on the front end. "There was a lot of back and forth trying to come up with a contract," says Epstein. "This was the first of its kind, sort of like we were starting from scratch. Especially with Uber."
Planners felt encouraged enough by the Direct Connect pilot that they decided to try an expanded version. Starting in January 2017, riders could call an Uber, taxi, or wheelchair-accessible vehicle to travel to or from several designated bus stops throughout the county, which had been divided into eight zones. The agency would pay the first $5 of the ride --- still a small fraction of what the least-efficient bus routes cost per passenger-trip. The only caveat was that the Direct Connect ride had to start and end within the same zone.
The zones proved very confusing, especially for a service that was already out of the ordinary. So Miller, PSTA's executive director, put the system to the test himself. For six months, he commuted and made his other routine trips exclusively by bus and Direct Connect. He learned firsthand how the eight-zone system went against common sense --- often requiring riders to travel south before picking up a bus to go north, for instance.
That experience, along with more formal surveys of riders, led PSTA to revamp the system yet again. Starting in April 2018, the zones were eliminated altogether, and the number of pickup/dropoff points tripled from eight to 24. "A midsize transit agency like ours, with the funding that we get, we can't have all our 41 routes running at 15-minute service," says Epstein. "The goal is to get someone to one of those core routes with 15- or 20-minute service, so they can get on the bus pretty quickly after they get dropped off. It makes their trip a lot quicker."
The annual budget for the program has been modest --- $40,000 the first year, $60,000 this fiscal year --- with the savings reinvested into the core bus network. Monthly ridership has grown to nearly 1,000 riders in October 2017, although the agency isn't looking for massive numbers as a metric of success. "If we were seeing a huge boost in ridership for this program, it would mean our data was wrong," says Ashlie Handy, public information officer for PSTA. "The reason that we cut this route to begin with is that it was a low-performing route. We are very limited in funding, and these partnerships have saved us so much money that's going to go back to that core network."
Pinellas also has a nighttime ride-sharing program called TD Late Shift. It provides Uber, taxi, and paratransit service free of charge from point to point for workers who must travel to and from jobs that start or end during between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., when there's no PSTA bus service. "We have a very tourism-based economy here," says Handy. "A lot of the people that work at these hotels and restaurants are second- and third-shift workers. Those are the people that rely on our service the most. This program was really for them, helping them take shifts they wouldn't have been able to take, and work their way up the ladder."
Redefining Transit for the Digital Age
Despite that optimism, these are early days, and forecasting the future with a rapidly changing industry like ride-hailing is difficult. One persistent problem for PSTA and other agencies partnering with ride-hail companies is that the Ubers of the world like to hold onto their data rather than share it.
The PSTA obviously knows how many rides are logged by Uber drivers — they have to pay for each one — and starting in 2018, the ride-hail company is also providing figures on which pickup/dropoff locations are most popular, as well as average response time and average distance traveled on a monthly basis. But citing the privacy concerns of its riders, Uber doesn’t share more granular data that the agency would like to use in its planning, such as origin and destination, time of trip, total cost of trip, and names and email addresses of users so that PSTA could contact them and learn more about whether the program is working for them.
There’s another systemic issue that will have to be resolved if such partnerships are ever going to scale up on the national level: The National Transit Database currently won’t count Uber and taxi rides subsidized by transit agencies. In other words, local agencies can’t use federal money to support these types of pilots and programs. The soonest that’s likely to change would be the next time Congress reauthorizes the transportation bill — in 2020.
“We’re going to need to redefine what mobility is in the federal statute,” says Miller. “The federal government says public transportation has to be a shared ride. And at least right now, the DOT has decided that Uber is not a shared ride. It’s probably going to take a change to the federal funding formula to incentivize a lot more innovation, because we’re not getting any credit for these rides.”
Looking down the road, though, Miller says that transit agencies must continue to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and ride-hail partnerships are part of that. He likes to think of it as an opportunity, giving him the potential for a whole new approach to providing public transportation options. That opportunity began, paradoxically, when the voters rejected that one-cent sales tax back in 2014. “Part of it was that our referendum didn’t pass, and we had to come up with other options to serve our community,” says Miller. “But now, it’s just that our transit system likes to be a leader in innovation. We feel challenged by the idea that we can make this mobility management concept work.”
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