Integrating Uber with Mass Transit

Photo credit: Washington Post
Photo credit: Washington Post

by James A. Bacon

Arlington County is toying with the idea of replacing under-utilized bus lines in the northern part of the county with ride-sharing services provided by Uber Technologies Inc., and Lyft Inc. The service could offer rides to and from Metro stations at Ballston, East Falls Church and Courthouse

Subsidizing the ride-sharing services would be more cost-effective than operating full-service bus lines with low ridership,  Marti Reinfeld, the county’s interim transit chief, told the Washington Post

“What we would be supporting is picking up residents in their neighborhood and taking them to one or two designated stops, most likely a transit station,” Reinfeld said. “The county will subsidize that at some level.”

The idea is still conceptual, but Arlington officials confirm that they have held conversations with Uber and Lyft, both of which have sought similar partnerships elsewhere in the United States.

Bacon’s bottom line: Every transit operation in Virginia with money-losing routes ought to be thinking the same way.

The first step is to prune under-utilized and money-draining bus routes and concentrate resources into the most robust transportation corridors, offering greater frequency and reliability of service, in turn increasing ridership on those routes. This is what Houston famously has done, boosting ridership at no extra cost. The same consultants behind that transformation are working to rationalize the Richmond bus system.

The second step is to work with Uber, Lyft and anyone else with a bright idea to create a shared-ridership feeder system, in effect substituting vans and carpools for near-empty buses. Subsidies might be useful in order to stimulate the start-up of these services, but ideally they could be phased out over time as the concept takes hold and ridership builds to profitable levels.

A third step worth considering — requiring input from Uber, Lyft and others on what would be cost-effective — would be to invest in remodeling bus stops, rail stations and intermodal facilities to accommodate the easy ingress and egress of vans and carpools. The more seamless the connection between Uber-like services and mass transit, the more attractive the set-up is to passengers, and the more likely the idea is to succeed.

While I am no fan of subsidizing any mode of transportation, I acknowledge that there is no getting rid of money-losing transit operations, and we must do the best job with them we can. If subsidizing shared Uber rides instead costs less money, then there is a net gain to taxpayers.

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8 responses to “Integrating Uber with Mass Transit”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    well there goes the TOD concept to hell and back!!! eh? this ought to turn that 1/4 walk concept on it’s head!

    just have big transit backbones and uber/lyft serve to anyone living within a few miles? wow -that ought to change the whole concept of walkability to transit, eh?

    maybe that would be a way to deal with periods of peak traffic that overwhelms METRO and other transit – just bring in those peak hour uber/lyft vans!!!

    and .. also… just want to point out – that innovation – like this – fosters regulation. Uber, lyft, drones, cell phones, GPS, distracted driving, express lanes, EZ pass, solar, etc, ec, etc… more regulations.

    so is there a connection between the PACE of innovation and the number of regulations? Each new innovation ends up with some level of regulation? Can’t have drones hovering over your neighbor’s swimming pool and daughter in a bikini – right? Bingo – new regulation!

  2. Inthemiddle Avatar

    Correct! And the new regulation is desirable. Who wants drones hovering over lives, invading our privacy? Regulations beat shotguns every day.

  3. Blackbird Fly Avatar
    Blackbird Fly

    They should implement bike share programs to combat the last mile problem as well. They should integrate pricing so that if you purchase access to the bike you also get a transfer onto the bus/rail.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I have a question. It’s my understanding that scooters do not require a auto drivers license. Scooters can travel in traffic and can stay with traffic up to about 40mph.

    They would seem to be better for getting to/from transit hubs – at least for some folks. They even come in 3 wheel and with enclosed cabins.

    does anyone know of a scooter-share program?

    I don’t think they belong on interstates – no question.

  5. JOHN BR Avatar

    As in many parts of the country, bus ridership went down when service quality went down.

    In Northern Virginia, huge sums have been spent on trains while bus service was cut back.. Once you build a train line, it stays there forever and costs enormous sums just for upkeep and maintenance. (and all the fares are hugely subsidized) But trains are favored by politicians and the well-to-do and buses are considered to be only for the lower classes.

    A well designed and flexible bus system can accommodate changing needs, locations and demographics and actually provide good service. A tiny investment compared to what has been spent on trains would allow buses to get a fair chance to succeed and help many more people.

    So before dropping buses and going to Uber/Lyft, try to really provide a service that works.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Most of Europe and Asia use rail – and they don’t consider subsidized any more than we consider fire and rescue or schools subsidized.

    they just see it as a necessary tax-supported service.

    With the DC area not getting any more major roads – and already dissected by interstates -I don’t know how you’d do bus service alone without METRO.

    transit buses do not belong on the interstates yet if you wanted to go from point A to point B in NoVa more than a couple miles – you’d not get there on a bus in any reasonable timeframe.. and that’s what METRO is for and what rail is for in Europe and Asia.

    think of it in terms of coast-to-coast airlines verses regional airlines.

    if you want to go Reagan to Charlotte – it’s different than Dulles to LA.

    In NoVa – METRO is for the longer distances.. and bus the shorter runs.


    bus – vienna to smithsonian – 60 minutes
    Metro – 32 minutes

  7. jalbertbowden Avatar

    “Bacon’s bottom line: Every transit operation in Virginia with money-losing routes ought to be thinking the same way.”

    A Few Thoughts:
    a) these services rely on smart phone apps, which is coincidentally not very common amongst those less fortunate in society. if this is going to be implemented by government, there needs to be another option for poor people.
    b) uber price gouges during peak times…not even going to touch on the legality of uber and their corporate scheming, but that’s going to simply take large sums of money out of our citizens hands, as well as, once again, completely take poor people (the ones who need public transit the most) out of the picture.
    c) subsidizing highly profitable companies is not a solid economic approach, unless you are shooting for monopolies. then, it is the golden ticket.

  8. There may be some additional benefits for folks to have an Uber/Lyft-ish capabaility in southeast Virginia.

    One of the problems of rail and to a somewhat lesser extent of busses is their need to adhere to prescribed routes and schedules. For some folks this is a gross inconvenience. … and can be very time consuming …

    For those of you unfamiliar with Tidewater’s (hopefully we’ll someday drop the silly Hampton Roads moniker) geography, it takes a long time to travel for may folks to get to jobs and other activities since we have very few concentrated centers of employment.

    Someone travelling from northern Norfolk to a job in The Beach’s Bon Secours med center in Kempsville area would 1) walk to the nearest bus stop, 2) take a bus to the St. Paul’s Blvd transfer station in Norfolk, 3) change to a second bus to the Newtown Road Light Rail/Bus transfer station, 4) ride a third bus to Kempsville, and 5) walk to the ultimate destination. (Not exactly door-to-door service). The total trip distance might be 15 miles.

    I don’t know how rates might work but if it could be made reasonably affordable (understandably including a subsidy which HRT already gets) it could make some sense in our spread-out area. Think also of the plight of shift workers who now have only the taxi during non bus/light rail hours. For anyone trying to cross the harbor from say Newport News to a job in Chesapeake the trip probably becomes impossible.

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