Much is being discussed about the opportunities and challenges of connected and automated vehicles. The benefits in private vehicles and the even greater potential of automated on-demand ride sharing are increasingly recognized. However, the effect on public transit systems has been less investigated and could be one of the real mobility game-changers.
Despite some hype about growing transit ridership in the USA, the data is quite disappointing. Statistics show that 2016 transit ridership dropped in absolute terms in every metro area except six: Seattle, Houston, Milwaukee, Detroit, New York and San Francisco. Certainly, relatively low fuel prices are encouraging private driving. But public transit suffers from several limitations that will be even more problematic in the future. Public transit runs on a fixed route and schedule system.
Emerging tech-enabled ride sharing is on-demand, point-to-point. Although on-demand ride sharing is not best for every trip, it overcomes two of the big limitations of transit – fixed routes and fixed schedule. The limitations of fixed transit were highlighted in a recent study of travel times.
On average, US transit riders spend about twice as long getting to work as those who drive – about 22 minutes longer than private car commuters. These longer commute times are related to transit wait times, but also related to first- and last-mile access challenges. To encourage ridership, transit agencies need to get more serious about travel-time efficiency. And cooperating with ride sharing to overcome the first- and last-mile time penalty could be a large part of the fix.
Another challenge for transit riders is payment systems. Although many transit agencies are moving to smart card, electronic payment technologies, most agencies are behind the technology curve in providing mobile payment options. This becomes even more important when transit agencies recognize ride-sharing companies as a partner in overcoming first- and last-mile access challenges, helping to build transit efficiency and ridership.
A number of agencies are rolling out electronic payment options or partnering with ride-sharing companies for transit access. But no agency as yet has fully integrated mobile payments with both public transit and companies such as Uber and Lyft.
Finally, transit agencies have an obligation to provide demand response services for persons with limited mobility. The cost of providing these on-call services is significant. Brookings recently estimated that demand-response services make up 12% of the total cost for all transit services while carrying about 2% of all trips. This situation gives transit agencies ample incentive to look to ride-sharing companies as a new way to provide demand response services. The potential to reduce demand-response service costs by 50% or more through ride sharing services is within reach.
By embracing ride sharing options, transit agencies will begin to reinvent bus services. Ride sharing is at the base of the learning curve, as first ride sharing enhances transit, and then automation allows for complete reinvention of rubber-tire transit itself. As US transit agencies continue to be burdened by capital debt that strains the operating budget, agencies would do well to rapidly embrace new technologies to increase ridership and reduce trip costs.
Don Hunt is a transportation consultant and former director of Colorado DOT firstname.lastname@example.org