Uberizing Van Pools: A Useful Experiment

Northern Virginia transportation officials will try an interesting experiment to help cope with traffic disruptions during construction of the $2.3 billion Interstate 66 widening project — they will allow commuters to sign up and pay for van-pool services through a smartphone app. Reports the Washington Post:

“This is not just new technology for the area, it is also new technology and service in an area that has been a bit of a desert for transit options,” said Chuck Steigerwald, director of strategic planning at the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC), which oversees a regional van-pool service and runs commuter buses from Prince William to Washington.

The apps will be critical, he said, to encouraging people to use transit and van-pool services during peak construction on the I-66 expansion, a project that also aims to change the way people move along the corridor.

The PRTC is planning to launch a free, on-demand ­microtransit service from the Gainesville and Haymarket neighborhoods to OmniRide commuter lots starting next summer. PRTC officials say the agency will develop an app to connect riders to rides. The $1.1. million project will provide transportation from residential areas to bus stops for commuters who don’t take the bus because of the challenges of using park-and-ride lots, which are already at capacity, officials said.

The funding will cover the cost of a software interface that will allow vehicle operators to respond to commuter requests with dynamic, real-time routing. It also will pay for vehicles, onboard vehicle hardware, transit operations and advertising of the services.

In another high-tech effort, the PRTC is creating a platform for a flexible van-pool program that will connect riders with van pools and facilitate payment of fares. The $317,600 project will enable the use of the technology to potentially transform the way van pools operate in Northern Virginia, said Robert Schneider, executive director of the PRTC.

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s good to see Northern Virginia transportation officials experiment with new technology. Persuading more commuters to use vans and buses is potentially the most cost-effective way to squeeze more capacity out of the region’s overloaded transportation arteries.

There’s more to a successful ride-hailing service like Uber and Lyft, though, than just connecting people with rides via smart phone. Ride-hailing companies have sophisticated algorithms to predict when and where ridership demand will materialize and where to pre-position vehicles to serve that demand. As demand waxes and wanes and moves around, these companies respond nimbly. Will PRTC be able to go with the (traffic) flow? We’ll see.

Another question is whether riders will avail themselves of van pools for the convenience of reaching park-and-ride lots. Might they not prefer to ride a van directly to their destination (or very close to it) rather than to a park-and-ride lot where they then shift to another transportation mode? Will they see enough of a value-add proposition to make it worth their while?

Finally, I wonder if PRTC ever considered the option of contracting directly with Uber, Lyft or another third-party company to come up with creative solutions. The Washington Post article doesn’t tell us.

Still, I don’t see how this initiative can hurt. The worst case scenario is that commuters don’t respond. In the context of a $2.3 billion construction project, the cost is peanuts. On the positive side, things just might work out as hoped. If we’re ever going to improve our transportation system, we need to make lots of small, inexpensive experiments, discard the losers, and scale up the winners. You don’t know if something will work until you try it. There is nothing wrong with failure — as long as government acknowledges the failures, shuts them down quickly, and moves on.

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4 responses to “Uberizing Van Pools: A Useful Experiment

  1. PRTC doesn’t suggest this will be a permanent commuter service, but it sure will demonstrate (or not) the feasibility of getting commuters directly from their homes to shared POV transit options without using their own cars. Isn’t that exactly what “HOV” subsidies were intended to induce? That should build a proven business base and infrastructure/planning support (e.g., the places to meet for ride sharing and drop-offs) for private takeover of this service by Uber and Lyft, complementing the service they already provide getting commuters from home to the nearest mass transit station.

    But, I remain concerned about the PRTC project proving to be so successful and so cheap thanks to taxpayer subsidy and having so much invested in vehicles that the pressure mounts to keep it as a government run service in competition with private vendors. That’s the transportation function itself, not software and facilitation. Where’s the future in that?

  2. Somewhere between Northern Virginia’s present and a Manhattan like future there has to be a middle state. It seems to me that a combination of road expansion to add dedicated bus and uber oriented van traffic and an expansion of express buses / vanpools is that intermediate state. The population density will take years to reach the level where another expansion of heavy rail transit is warranted. In the meantime, as TMT has eloquently described, the current Metro expansion is helping in some way but causing turmoil in other ways. For example, cordon off Tysons and prohibit driving during the workdays inside the cordon. Implement a system of express buses during those workdays to get around inside Tysons. You’s have to bypass Rt 7 and allow some gantry based approach for residents of Tysons to drive their cars out of Tysons and back to their homes but driving in Tysons could be curtailed. The resulting freeing up of parking spaces for high density development could provide the tax base required to bypass Rt 7 around Tysons in one way or another.

    Taxi cabs and Uber based vanpools could be among the transportation options within the Tysons cordon during workdays.

  3. Even though NoVa is one of the metros that has a high percentage of HOVs, it’s still relatively low compared to the percent of SOV and when you talk to SOV folks, they invariably claim that their job prevents them from “pooling” or riding VRE even though an on-demand free ride home is offered.

    In terms of subsidies – there already are massive ones including providing parking to people who prefer to drive SOV and if there were no parking or limited parking – like there is in NYC – they likely would “pool” or “transit” – especially in the NoVa area which has a large number of govt workers and contractors and subcontractors to the govt.

    NoVa is not unique by any means as said before. A cursory visit to most any of the USAs Metro areas will show massive rush hour commuting – AND congestion – no matter how many roads there are – commuters will fill whatever available capacity there is and then some.

    Uber and related already exist and already are offering “pooling”. What’s going on in NoVa is to see if govt can motivate more use of it. They already subsidize not only parking, but van/bus pools, and VRE so this is not really “extra” – they’re just adding more options to the existing regime.

    Perhaps – one might ask – how much of urban commuting and congestion is the responsibility of govt verses the responsibility of those who choose to commute to “own” their commute – time-wise and dollar-wise?

  4. By the way – speaking of govt and concessionaires , etc, I am keying this from a National Park campground in Mesa Verde. Yep. Those who do camp in National Parks will confirm that NPS seldom provides amenities like electricity,showers and virtually never – things like WiFi – but in this park the campground and other services is run by a concessionaire. There are also fees for ranger tours of the various sites.

    One can argue pro and con about whether the govt should run campgrounds, and the like or the private sector should but I kind of like the blend where NPS controls the quality of the park but allows profit-making companies to provide the services. This keeps some level of control over “commercialization”.

    So.. the idea that the govt would partner with Uber — to essentially deal with urban commuter congestion that absolutely will not be fixed by building more roads is certainly worth the effort. It may take several iterations to reach something that “works” but I’m all for it. Perhaps we’ll see some further integration between tolling, park&ride commuter lots and Uber type services. Worse things could happen!

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