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How cities can work with Uber and Lyft to create bigger, better transportation networks

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A new report looks at how cities can partner with a new generation of tech companies to ensure a smooth ride going forward

Will your next public transit trip be in the back of an Uber? That might have seemed ridiculous in years past, when the company was less established, and more likely to be challenging city regulations as opposed to collaborating with municipal authorities. But the increasing ubiquity of transportation network companies (TNCs) such Lyft, as well as carshare and bikeshare companies, have made these services increasingly important parts of our urban transportation networks. City transit authorities aren’t seeing TNCs and emerging mobility companies as upstarts or disruptors,. They're potential partners who can offer cost-effective ways to expand service and reach underserved populations.

TransitCenter, a New York-based public policy research and advocacy group, examined how these new agreements are changing transportation, and their potential to reshape how we get around cities in the future. The result, Private Mobility, Public Interest, suggests the changing landscape will continue to introduce popular new transit technologies. Cities need to adapt, seek out mutually beneficial partnerships, and embrace rapid change.

"Partnerships have been coming out with increased frequency this past year," says Zak Accuardi, a program analyst with TransitCenter, during a press conference yesterday to discuss the report. "They’ve been happening so fast that even with a team here dedicated to conducting this research, it’s been hard to keep up. There’s a lot of confusion and concern over these services, and the exact role that they play."

But the wave of new agreements between cities and tech companies, such as subsidizing Uber rides, raise questions about the risks and rewards of making private-public partnerships more common, and how to protect the public good while handing over some control of transit networks to private firms. After conducting dozens of interviews, Accuardi and his colleagues have some ideas, and a roadmap, for how cities can embrace the era of Uber and Lyft while still championing equitable and affordable transportation.

Reinforce the strengths of public transit and realize ride hailing apps are just part of the solution

It seems almost too simple; link with flexible, demand-driven transportation, and mobility issues will fix themselves. While Uber and Lyft can be big assets for cities, they're far from total solutions. And, integrating these systems doesn’t change the need for better transit-oriented planning, including pushing for more mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods.

These systems work best when linked with robust, fixed-route transit, such as trains and light rail, which are much better at moving crowds through dense urban corridors, especially during rush hours. They can help extend the reach of existing routes, and serve as first mile-last mile solutions.

"We’ve got to help private companies understand that we don’t necessarily want to be in competition with you," says Lisa Walton, Chief Technology Officer at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, during the press call. "We want to work with you, and this is what’s in it for you—more profit—and here’s what’s in it for us—providing a better service to the citizens, as well as optimizing those services. And we’re not going to get their on our own."

Partnerships with TNCs provide the most benefit in areas without robust public transit. Accuardi pointed to agreements the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in St. Petersburg, Florida, has with Uber, using the ride hailing service to provide trips in an area where budget cuts forced a service cutback. The program helps maintain transit access, and the agency hopes the savings will allow it to provide additional support to underserved communities.

Take advantage of parking spaces and existing infrastructure

With large networks of drivers and vehicles, Uber and Lyft can seem like their own transit ecosystems. But cities still control an important part of any mobility network; urban infrastructure. Accuardi says that cities need to leverage their physical assets to make sure tech firms they partner with are meeting benchmarks and championing city policy goals. For instance, San Francisco regulates how carshare companies gain access to prime parking spots near important locations such as BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train stations; when these services demonstrate a certain amount of activity, they get more access additional parking spots. That kind of data-driven verification makes sure private access to public space serves the entire community.

Embrace flexibility

Demand-based routing makes TNCs perfect partners for increasing access and mobility for groups who are often shortchanged by mass transit, such as the disabled and those in low-income neighborhoods. Subsidizing trips for these populations can help both agencies and private companies benefit, as long as they’re meeting equality requirements.

Cities also need to change the way they operate to be more nimble and keep pace with new technology. The report highlights how the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, which updated the way it solicits services, makes deals with outside companies. By relaxing rules to allow a wider variety of firms to apply for city contracts, they gave emerging tech firms and startups a better chance to win business, with the hope that these new partners usher in more innovative ideas to the city transit network.

Another example in Kansas City demonstrated how quick adaptation can provide concrete commuter benefits. The city waived standard procurement practices to set up a trial with Bridj, a "pop-up infrastructure" service that runs on-demand shuttles, that helped residents move between two areas with poor transit connections. By being willing to partner with a new company, Kansas City was able to quickly leverage new technology and begin delivering new mobility solutions.

Figure out fare payment and trip planning technology

Uber and Lyft wouldn't have become so popular without their seamless payment systems, a lesson city transit systems should adopt wholesale and immediately. Both mobility and the mobile computing experience should be simple and painless. Cities need to streamline the user experience, focus on their strengths, and look towards partnerships to make that vision a reality.

Numerous tech companies have already developed trip planning and mapping programs and apps, such as Citymapper and Moovel. Municipalities, who often lack the dedicated tech resources to keep up, are served best when they take advantage of these systems; if transit agencies can build and maintain open data sets around transportation, then they can quickly and easily be fed into state-of-the-art apps

Data, data, data

It seems like a no-brainer, but better data leads to better planning and policy outcomes. Any transit agency working with TNCs needs to tap into ride data to help create a more efficient network. Many cities have taken ridership data from bikeshare services, such as Citi Bikes in New York City, to help plan new updates to the city’s bike infrastructure. If you can measure it, you can manage and improve it.