New mobility options like Uber and Bird present challenges for transit
By King Williams
This is the first in an ongoing series for SaportaReport, The Future of Transit, a series looking at the history, current state and future implications of transit within the metro Atlanta region.
I remember growing up in the 1990’s daydreaming during community meetings while my mom and countless advocated for better MARTA bus service in our section of Decatur. As a kid, the walks seemed endless – miles between our apartment complex and South DeKalb Mall – our connection point for buses and the occasional expensive cab ride.
The need for MARTA was obvious. We had to walk miles every day to get to the # 86 Lithonia bus or the #15 to the Decatur Station. They were frequently late and unreliable for people like us who depended on public transit.
It forced people like us to buy a car even when we couldn’t afford one – pushing us deeper into debt. People live in our community lived in low-rent apartments and went to blue collar and service jobs in Atlanta and parts north.
Without a car, you were literally stranded in your own community. Neighborhood carpools were the norm as people chipped in for gas money. By the time the buses started serving our apartment complex, my family moved to a house – only a mile or two away – into another community that also suffered from infrequent bus service which forced us into needing a car for more job and life opportunities.
Ridesharing as utility
Fast forward to 2018, ridesharing has entered the Metro Atlanta scene with the emergence of companies like Uber and Lyft as well as other mobility services such as ZipCar, CitiBike and Bird scooters to name a few.
First let’s understand rideshares aren’t new nor is the idea of a company providing transit as paid service for people needing to get from point A to point B, no matter what Elon Musk says. What differs today is the Ridesharing has went from rather vehicle limited (bus/train/cab) and localized transit agencies (MARTA) ranging in quality/variety of services to a boarder-less, vehicle diverse buffet of options that leaves many transit agencies perplexed on how to assess them as friend or foe.
It’s because of these next generation options of Uber, Lyft and even Bird motorized scooters, that MARTA must figure out how to both compete and compliment these services in the midst of slight declines in ridership. Many of these next-gen transit options poses both solutions to and compete with MARTA for both “first mile” and “last mile” connectivity. But as the needs of Atlanta needing adequate mass transit solution it’s time to think heavily on mass transit will mean going forward.
Can ridesharing companies provide mobility services at such a scale that it makes it hard for public transit agencies to compete?
Uber is already actively experimenting with integrated transit payments for customers buying plane tickets and other mass transit agencies fares within the app. Uber also has acquired JUMP, a dockless bike company, and it has a partnership with Lime scooters to address small trips that expand how it moves customers within the “first mile” and “last mile”.
While Uber, Lyft, Bird and many others provide multi-transit options my concern is for transit itself.
Uber currently has a program in the small town of Innisfil, Ontario to become the town’s default transit service and is piloting a bus program in Cairo, Egypt… Meanwhile, Lyft is currently on a positive public relations campaign with its ability to shuttle riders to the polls for this years Midterm elections in the US. Additionally, Uber is using old school buses for its Uberpools, including optimized pickup points beyond the reach of most MARTA buses and offering substantially lower rates than taxicabs.
It’s time for MARTA and the newly-approved regional transit agency – The ATL – to start looking at Mobility as a Service (MaaS) as an option.
Mobility-as-a-Service aka MaaS is the idea of combining public and private transport into one unified service. The idea is that users can pay a single monthly subscription like Netflix for a wide amount of options or a-la-carte service on a need to use basis like a MARTA train ride to the airport.
MARTA and the upcoming regional transit system The ATL would be well served to further integrate mobility services like Bird and electric bikes immediately beyond where they currently are. MARTA has the advantage of up-front pricing, charging $2.50 for a single, one-way trip. Uber/Lyft often have to rely on surge pricing to protect their profitability, but it is a negative for Uber/Lyft riders. MARTA could be adding these mobility services as a bundle with the monthly MARTA card as a way to increase potential ridership a bus and rail stations. Additionally, by starting with integrating smaller mobility services like BIRD or Lime with riders, adding an allotted amount of rides via a rideshare company such as Lyft and gaining better ridership data in the process that is currently available, this would help in better assessing the types of transit needs.
Something to watch out for
Essentially, as these mobility services enter the transit arena, it shifts transit from a public model to a private-sector one. These mobility service companies, with access to venture capital funding, could gain consumer market share – making it hard for transit agencies to keep up.
Case in point, Lyft was launched in 2012, and it now claims to cover 94 percent of the United States as potential markets for ridesharing. This expansion, combined with below-cost rides, have led to Uber/Lyft becoming a duopoly.
As the Metro Atlanta region is poised to gain 3 million new residents by 2040, it faces a myriad of issues when it comes to transportation.
MARTA is enjoying new funding from Clayton County and the City of Atlanta, but the regional need for transit far outpaces the available dollars. It’s unclear when the Atlanta Beltline will begin to have light rail running along the corridor, and it’s even less clear when the entire 22-mile ring will have transit.
The ATL, the regional transit agency approved during the last legislative session, is supposed to unify the Atlanta but it has no real funding stream to develop new transit.
Before the ATL happens, it would be wise for MARTA to meet this head on with more partnerships, reliable bus schedules and potentially smaller MARTA-branded fleets for low-cost rideshare pools.
I wonder if transit agencies are viewing rideshare services as a companion, a competitor or both?
It’s my hopes that MARTA would be open to people with new ideas on how to provide flexible and competitive transit services throughout our region.
It brings me back to my childhood and where I grew up. People throughout our region should have access to multiple modes of transportation without having to own a car. The future of transit in metro Atlanta depends on MARTA and the ATL figuring out how to best serve them all.