How the Uber effect will reinvent public transit

By Rahul Kumar

A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) came to the headline-grabbing conclusion that up to 95 percent of New York City taxi rides could be met through only 2,000 on-demand 10-person shuttles. The study demonstrates what companies like Uber and Lyft are striving toward, but also what many public transit agencies are struggling to address: that future transportation systems will seamlessly and dynamically match riders with the best transit modes and routes.

For people who still rely on the bus as their primary transit mode, not much has changed since the days mass transit was powered by horses. Mass transit today is still typified by slow, single-size vehicles operating on timetables that tend to get harder and harder to keep up with throughout the day, running along fixed-corridors where passengers can board from specified stops, lining up one by one.

In the era of the on-demand economy and the proliferation of ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber offering to be “everyone's private driver,” cities and public transit companies must explore a model where supply responds to the demand.

Existing fixed route-based transit systems are just that: fixed. There are plenty of advantages to these systems, not the least of which is operational simplicity. But our nation’s backbone of transit agencies – often overburdened and underfunded – should be asking themselves “what service options do riders want?” as opposed to “what service options are the easiest for us to deliver?”

The answer is personal public transit. This concept of on-demand mobility isn’t all that new, however. Agencies have been running on-demand services for years – extra late-night buses, trippers along busy routes and shuttles between frequented subway transfers – but there’s always been some element of guesswork, and rampant inefficiencies in the process. 

Another issue is the cost and operation of paratransit.  Traditionally, these services, which act as a lifeline to riders, cost two to 10 times that of traditional fixed-route transit as they operate “door-to-door” for long durations with inefficiencies of wait times between trips.

Transit agencies from Boston to Washington have recently started to look to partners like Uber and Lyft to help provide a ride-hailing option to relieve fiscal and infrastructure pressures. A 2016 Brookings report estimates transit agencies could save $1.1 billion to $2.2 billion per year using ride-hailing companies for paratransit, based on an average $13 to $18 per ride.  However, the secret here is that versus transit these savings do not scale up very well; ride-hailing services are really not designed to handle simultaneous, multiple trips efficiently, therefore even a bus with six passengers on it has less of a cost impact than six separately ordered Uber vehicles.

But, the underlying issue is that most transit agencies have not been able to capitalize on what Uber and Lyft already know—that today’s riders are holding the most important transportation innovation in decades in the palm of their hand – the smartphone.

Forward-thinking city planners in Gainesville, Fla., and Helsinki are reevaluating the traditional transit equation and instead choosing to co-opt ridesharing and even autonomous vehicle technology to fill current service gaps in less densely populated areas. Riders should be able to tell their transit agency precisely where they are and what they need via their phone. This will be the key to enabling agencies to better engage with their riders, creating the possibility for a much more immediate response and solution to make public transit their first choice.

From the agency perspective, there are tremendous operational efficiencies that can be had by implementing an on-demand transit solution.  Using a paratransit vehicle that is between trips, for example, agencies can have their drivers change on the fly to an on-demand mode meet the immediate needs of other riders. smaller on-demand vehicles could serve communities, like housing developments and campuses and business parks, and provide a first/last mile connection to bigger transit hubs. This not only provides an economical solution for commuters, but it also enables more people able to access public transportation at a lower operational cost for transit agencies.  

Solving the inefficiency riddle will ultimately require transit agencies, technology companies and other innovators to seamlessly work together to maximize social benefits because public transit benefits every American—even if you don't ride.             


Rahul Kumar is the VP of Revenue for TransLoc, a transportation technology company that provides seamless mobility for all. Rahul is a 16-year transportation industry and has worked across transport operations in the public and private sectors.



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Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Apr 19, 2017

Using technology helps communities understand their citizens needs. In Orange County, a traffic analyst used the County's GIS to determine how useful the bus stops that connected to the intercity rail were to commuters. He measured the distance that a bus could travel in 15 minutes from the Metrolink station. Then he mapped the most populated work locations. The map revealed that the majority of job sites were outside the 15-minute commuter comfort zones.The county used the intelligent map to reconfigure its metro service stops so that more people could get to work on time.

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