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Public Transit! Your Uber has arrived. Please proceed with caution.

Posted by Luke Upton on Jan 27, 2016

Uber_UseGood luck to anyone trying to drive to one of Paris’ two airports this week. Thousands of the cities taxi drivers have shut down roads, burned piles of tires and in one particularly lively demonstration had to be dispersed by riot police using tear gas. Whilst a blockade near Orly airport saw a shuttle bus drive straight through it, injuring several picketing taxi drivers. The cause of such disruption? Uber. The wildly popular but controversial ridesharing app, estimated to be worth between $60 billion and $70 billion, has become a sworn enemy of taxi drivers in Paris (and indeed worldwide) who protest at what they see as unfair, possibly illegal competition and the government’s inability to enforce laws designed to protect the licensed taxi industry. The battles between the traditional taxi drivers and Uber and its similar service providers is set to rumble on. But Uber has now arrived in public transit, and SmartRail World Editor Luke Upton investigates how it offers both an opportunity and a threat to the industry.

A limited partnership between Uber and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) was launched in July 2015. But this was focussed more on offering a $20 voucher to MARTA riders to use the service for the first time and Uber advertising on the transit authority’s app – nothing too revolutionary.

But 2016 has opened with transportation digital technology company, TransLoc, who supply their solutions to a number of transit agencies across the USA partnering with Uber to “create a new standard in public transit and private technology collaboration”. The TransLoc Rider app, which is the official app for 135+ municipal, university and corporate agencies, will be integrated with the Uber API ensuring riders can incorporate multiple modes of transportation, including public transit, into their journey planning.

This is being pitched as a solution to the first-mile / last-mile challenge and the concern that potential riders would take public transport but don’t because of difficulties getting to or from the train / metro. And instead they end up driving.  Users simply input their destination in the Rider app to receive a personalized journey that incorporates the optimal combination of walking, transit and Uber. The app instantly plans a route that will get them where they want to go cost-effectively, quickly and easily.

TransLoc Uber initial design concepts (may change with final release).

“It is exciting to see technology companies and public transit agencies work together to test new ways for making trip options convenient and complete,” said Michael Melaniphy, American Public Transportation Association President and CEO. “As private sector innovation accelerates, such partnerships will enhance the attractiveness of public transportation, with the traveling public being the prime beneficiary.”

TransLoc Rider with Uber integration will debut in mid-February in Memphis, Tennessee and Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina with agency partners Memphis Area Transit Authority and GoTriangle.

The APTA high command might be a supporter of this. And there is clearly a challenge on the first / last mile – particularly in the USA which this can help overcome. But what if the Uber journey (using un-trained, non-unionised drivers) costs so little, the passenger decides to stick in the car the whole way?

And what happens when UberPool – where you share a ride and split the cost with another person who just happens to be requesting a ride along a similar route comes out of beta and rolls out across the world?

Or what about UberCOMMUTE, which is being trialled in Chengdu, China which allows people who drive to work to use Uber’s technology to show them passengers (using China's UberPool app called People's Uber+) going the same way, along with the fare they'll earn from picking them up?

How do the maths look on public transport when you are sharing a car with 4 or 6 people? Probably not great. Could anyone buy a minibus, pop onto Uber and become in effect a bus service? That would depend on local legislation. But the answer is potentially yes. Bad news for Paratransit? The answer is probably yes.

Then there’s another issue – paying for the journey. There’s little doubt that the ease of which Uber journeys are paid for is a huge part of its success. And for rail and metro fare collection barring a few notable exceptions is a long way behind Uber’s ease and convenience.

SmartRail Europe 2016

The high-profile leaders in this sector like Uber, Lyft, Ola and others have in a short period of time have already shaken up the taxi business. And its rapid growth is rooted in an ability to leverage spare capacity and expand quickly all without large investment. Capacity and investment are two of the biggest challenges in public transport, and these show no sign of easing. And faced with such an agile, popular and low cost form of transportation, public transport has to exercise caution. Uber will appeal to those who might have otherwise taken the train, metro or bus. And the nature of their development shows they are constantly looking for opportunities to disrupt new sectors.

The first Uber journey took place in California in 2010. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the region's largest carrier, announced this week it had lost more than 10% of its boardings from 2006 to 2015, a decline that appears to be accelerating. There’s a lot of factors within this period that influence this decline, but could some of this be down to rapid growth of Uber and their fellow apps?

There’s huge potential to partner with Uber, but caution must also be maintained and the performance of public transport, particularly in payments and booking must be improved to head off any future threat. 


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Topics: IT and WiFi, Ticketing, smartcities, urbanmobility

Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton

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