How Free Ridesharing Could Make It Easier To Catch The Bus In Austin

Aug 15, 2018

The number of partnerships between public transit agencies and private ridesharing companies like Uber has been booming. Since 2016, at least 27 such programs have sprung up across the country, including one in Central Austin. 

Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University, says more transit agencies are trying to adapt to the growing popularity of ridesharing rather than fight it. 

“We’re seeing a remarkable trend out there,” he says. “Transit agencies are feeling a need to think outside the box, and so more and more are turning to Uber and Lyft to try to solve particular problems to allow more flexible service to troubled areas.”

The Chaddick Institute released a study earlier this month on the growing number of transit and ridesharing partnerships. In the Austin area, Capital Metro has partnered with the nonprofit RideAustin to launch a pilot program that provides service in what’s called the Exposition Area Innovation Zone.

Cap Metro says the area, which covers only about eight city blocks near Central Austin, is home to a large number of tech workers. When RideAustin users hail a ride from within the service area, they can go to and from two particular bus stops for free. Cap Metro spokeswoman Mariette Hummel said the agency has the authority to spend up to $24.5 K on the program.

Neither RideAustin nor Cap Metro made anyone available for an interview, but Schwieterman says the program could encourage more people to take public transit.

“Offering free trips in the Exposition area, a very tightly defined area where there’s a lot of tech jobs … is a nice little pilot,” Schwieterman says. "The city can see how we can improve mobility in that area while putting some boundaries on this so it doesn’t become too expensive.”

Schwieterman says some of the more ambitious partnerships that covered larger geographic areas failed because they were too expensive for public transit agencies to sustain.

Schwieterman says data from ridesharing companies could be especially valuable in helping transit agencies better understand how people get around. But for private companies, this information is often proprietary, and ridesharing customers are not always open to having their data shared.

“As remarkable as it may seem, agencies and planners don’t know exactly where people go from point A to point B,” he says. “When you design a system, you really like to know what kind of mobility roles it’s serving and where people are beginning their trips and where exactly they’re ending their trips. And where can we move our bus stops to better serve that?”

Schwieterman says it would have been tough to imagine many of these partnerships existing just a couple of years ago. Uber and Lyft famously left Austin in 2016 after residents voted to require fingerprint background checks for drivers. He says the growing openness of public transit agencies toward these partnerships signals a change in attitude.

“In many cities, ridesharing and transit are seen as adversarial forces, where city hall and transit officials are trying to, in effect, make life as difficult as they can for ridesharing,” Schwieterman says. “Now, I think they see working together, at least in some contexts, can be a win-win.”