June 12, 2019
TO UBER OR NOT
The Atlantic magazine got it about right, I think. In an article by Jarrett Walker in October, 2018, he wrote:
“Microtransit, or “Uber for public transit…is a new name for an old idea: “dial-a-ride” or demand-responsive transit. A van roams in a neighborhood. People can call a phone number and request a vehicle to take them where they want to go, or at least to a transit hub. The van might stop for others along the way, too. There are hundreds of these services in the United States…:”
Mr. Walker has been designing and redesigning dial-a-rides for 25 years and closes this part of the article by saying that the “only new feature of microtransit is smartphones.” Apps let customers reserve trips on shorter notice than before and without making a phone call. He then goes on to describe the inefficiencies in “dial-a-ride. These would include making realistic assessments about how many people could be served within a specific time period that would make it productive or profitable, inasmuch as labor costs would be comparable, even if the vehicles themselves would be less expensive.
Nonetheless, these inefficiencies, which are well-recognized, did not stop a five-county consortium composed of Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania counties in western North Carolina from recommending as part of their joint transportation needs study that they provide “short-notice” on-demand trips, and immediate transportation for non-emergency medical trips.
Closer to home, anyone Googling “Transportation Services in Forsyth County and Winston-Salem” will quickly discover that there are at least twelve transportation (bus or van) services for particular needs. The operative word here is particular, either fixed-route, scheduled, or on demand (more or less), for such things as trips to medical services, grocery stores, or other particular destinations. What is reassuring, however, is that urban planners in Winston-Salem are painfully aware of alternatives to a fixed route bus system that has only 54 buses. The Transit Authority was awarded a million-dollar federal grant to study the city and county’s transportation needs and the changes that were made were supposed to make things better. No one has their head in the sand here, but, as with most things, there’s only so much money available and only so much to work with.
It has also been suggested that Not for Profits could make Transportation a priority. Some have and perhaps others could. However, running a transportation system, even a tiny one, is still expensive and time-consuming, demands close management attention, and may not dovetail nicely into the mission of the NFP. On the other hand, almost every study on transportation needs I found on the Internet recommends exploring the possibilities of providing some type of incentives that would entice NFPs to expand or initiate such service.
Giving some impetus to the Uber-type solution is the fact that both Uber and Lyft seem to regard replacing public transportation as a worthy pursuit in order to find a new source of funds. As Uber has claimed, in documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, replacing public transit with a for-profit model is “a massive market opportunity.” Exactly how they would implement that model is unclear, except for one thing: the taxpayer would still be paying a subsidy to ride. It is hard to escape the impression that Uber is looking for a way to be “bailed out,” as Jarrett Walker suggests.
Nonetheless, the notion is inescapable that there must be some way to provide on-demand service to anywhere or at least pre-scheduled routing to specific places, like supermarkets, doctor’s offices, or other frequently visited places that does not have dedicated transportation services. Winston-Salem State University conducted a survey that revealed that bus riders can spend as much as four hours riding the bus between work and home or doing whatever else needs to be done, including going to the grocery store, only to find that they are allowed two bags on the bus. One interesting suggestion was that the three supermarkets on Miller Street – Harris-Tweeter, Whole Foods, and Publix – jointly fund a limited but sufficient van service that would shuttle people back and forth on some type of schedule. The only problem would be that it would be entirely possible that shopping would not be evenly divided between the three. Given profit margins in the supermarket business, would the priority be keeping food prices as low as possible or running a transportation system?
Nonetheless, that does not keep two transportation studies from including something like the following:
The following organizations could become partners in providing transportation services:
Although I could not find any studies that advocated using school buses after completing their routes in the afternoon to provide early evening particularized bus service, the idea was intriguing. But I must be missing some reason why they can’t. If I had to guess, it is likely labor costs.
© 2019 WD Publishing