An increasingly important (and somewhat treacherous) topic in the transportation world is the question of whether mass transit and transportation network companies (TNCs) can operate in conjunction with one another, or, failing that, in, at least, something like mutually exclusive harmony.
In my recent editorial in the fall edition of Traffic & Transit, I loosely pondered the idea of TNCs making a vested partnership with transit agencies, in an effort to maximize ridership for both forms. And I suppose I have been a bit off the ball, because it has already begun.
Among the several sessions I have been able to catch at the APTA’s Annual Meeting in Nashville this week was one that focused on this very issue—transit agencies and TNCs finding a way to support one another and work together toward the larger goal of increased mobility (and yes, profitability).
Uber’s Andrew Salzberg was among the panelists, and he made it plain that his organization is “fully aware of transit’s overall funding needs” and how more is needed in order for transit to flourish. He spoke to the chance for transit and TNCs together to make a larger impact, to go national in scale, rather than just isolatedly urban. In other words, the real business is in places where transit does not yet exist.
Still, it was an enthusiastic endorsement for partnership, considering that at present TNCs account for perhaps 3-4% of all transportation nationwide, and public transit isn’t much more. Salzberg envisioned a near-future where the combined figures stand at as much as 20%, going on to say that companies like Uber “benefit from having transit—strong transit—in place, because (TNC) riders largely are transit riders as well.”
In my home metro region of Chicago, a recent citywide fee on TNCs was passed, with the funds earmarked for improving the Chicago Transit Authority’s assets. Dorval R. Carter, Jr., the CTA’s CEO, said he does not view Uber or Lyft as a cause of decrease in transit ridership, but was adamant that “when transit level of service drops off, ridership falls and sometimes doesn’t come back.” What he seemed to be getting at is that if the TNCs want to operate within city limits without the restrictions being sought in cities like New York, they need to pay their share toward overall transportation improvements—notably if they are participating in first/last mile solutions, which clearly they are.
Lyft’s Lily Shoup sees transit as “the foundation of all urban mobility.” If Lyft, in addition to its point-to-point service, can fill in the first/last mile gaps, while supporting transit proliferation, then, she said, she feels the “symbiotic relationship between transit and TNCs” can be fruitful for both. Shoup cited the example of the company’s partnership with transit agencies in the Sonoma-Marin region of California, where the company is providing on-demand services and first/last mile solutions for the existing transit system.
In the long-term, more and more transparency will be needed, notably in the area of data-sharing (though I admit I got a bit bleary-eyed with all the data talk). What is presently clear is that TNCs are effectively making the cost of transportation to the common person more prevalent, which benefits transit, as its costs are always at the fore in a way that car ownership’s are not. Sure, you notice the cost of a fill-up, but how easily we forget the fees for the oil change, the tune-up, new shoes and pads, air filters, etc. Whereas hopping the El or ordering an Uber to and from work, you notice right away what comes out of your pocket. This awareness, hopefully, can aid a more protracted and productive discussion of funding needs for transit.