Pierce Transit is among a growing number of transit agencies exploring the use of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft and traditional taxis to connect people to bus lines.
The Federal Transit Administration recently awarded Pierce Transit more than $205,000 for a yearlong pilot program that will “coordinate on-demand rides within certain areas through the use of app-based technology,” Pierce Transit said in a news release.
Uber, Lyft and several taxi companies offer services in Tacoma and other areas of Pierce County.
“The rides funded by this grant will get people to bus stops, select transit centers or Park & Rides, or — from selected locations — to a rider’s final destination after Pierce Transit’s service hours,” the news release stated.
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“The project’s goals include addressing mobility challenges for those with limited or no access to transit, finding solutions for the growing problem of at-capacity Park & Rides, reducing road congestion by getting more people on transit and meeting the transportation needs of more remote riders.”
Pierce Transit hopes to launch the program in early 2017.
“The first phase of our work will be to finalize our test areas — where people would be able to use the service during the grant-funded project — and enter into agreements with potential partners,” said Rebecca Japhet, a Pierce Transit spokeswoman.
The agency will use data compiled during the pilot project to determine whether it helped increase mobility, with an eye toward possibly creating a more permanent “feeder system” that uses ride-hailing companies or taxis to connect to transit.
“We look forward to helping people make that connection to and from public transit and providing a more advanced and integrated transportation system,” Pierce Transit CEO Sue Dreier said.
Riders in identified zones will be able to use a smartphone app to request a ride to or from a specific bus stop or transit facility, where they then can catch a ride on public transit, according to Pierce Transit.
The ride-sharing or taxi companies will note on their app the areas they are ready to serve, Pierce Transit said. Customers using the app will see a button or enter a code that will charge Pierce Transit for the fare.
The agency estimates the average fare would be about $11.
Japhet said agency officials estimate the grant will pay for as many as 15,650 subsidized rides during the pilot program.
While the precise service areas have not been identified, Pierce Transit officials have discussed using the program in and around Puyallup and South Hill, Browns Point and Northeast Tacoma, and to serve the state Route 512 park & ride, according to agency documents.
Providing access to transit in the so-called “first mile, last mile” zone — that is, getting folks from their homes to transit and from transit to their final destination — has been a chronic problem for many transit agencies.
Across the nation, more and more agencies are turning to the private sector for help. Metro Magazine, which covers public transit and issues involving the motorcoach industry, reported on the issue last month.
Transit agencies from Santa Monica, California, to Pinellas County, Florida, have entered into partnerships with ride-sharing or taxi companies to address the issue, the magazine reported.
TriMet, which operates in Portland has partnered with Lyft to help close service gaps and recently included the BIKETOWN bike-sharing service, according to the Metro story.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last month that some transit agencies, including the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, are realizing cost savings as a result of such partnerships.
“The program actually saved the authority money because it eliminated two little-used routes in the area that cost about $140,000 a year,” the newspaper reported. “The Uber subsidy cost $40,000.”
How unions representing bus drivers feel about such proposals is unclear. Attempts to reach the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 758, which represents Pierce Transit’s drivers, were unsuccessful.
The use of ride-hailing services to provide support to public transit agencies comes with questions, including what happens if the companies decide it is not profitable to continue the service.
But Emily Castor, director of transportation policy for Lyft, told Bloomberg for a story last month that such programs likely have a future.
“This is an area that has the potential to be a very significant part of Lyft’s work in the future,” Castor said. “How quickly will it progress from small pilots to being institutionalized in transit agencies? I think that’s harder to predict.”