Public Transit vs. Rideshare Companies – Ridership Numbers at Stake

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

With the growth of rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft, and other market-based transportation options, many transit providers have seen their ridership decrease. However, there is the potential for transit and these other services to complement each other, enhancing transportation access and mobility for all.

Morgane Matthews drives for Safr, a ridesharing company that focuses on providing safe transportation to women and good jobs for its drivers. (WBUR)

In many large, populated urban areas, mass transit has historically thrived. This could be changing with the popularity of other ride options. A New York Times headline in 2017 asked: “Is Uber Helping or Hurting Mass Transit?” A recent research study by three economists examined a similar question: “Is Uber a substitute or complement for public transit?” The answers to these questions are complicated.

A recent analysis by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) found that transit ridership is falling in many of the top 50 transit markets in the U.S. and that over the decade nationally, excluding the New York metro area where ridership had been continuing to grow, transit ridership fell 7%. The latest news from New York, reported in the New York Times last month, is that transit ridership is now falling there as well, and dropped 2% between 2015 and 2017.

At the national level, the CRS found two main factors that impact ridership trends. The first is access to transit service. Nationally, the amount of transit provided and areas served has been expanding. However, at the same time, average fares have been increasing faster than inflation, deterring riders who are most sensitive to fare changes and limiting their ability to take transit. The second factor impacting ridership levels is the competition from other travel modes, including driving, using rideshare companies such as Lyft and Uber, car sharing companies such as Zipcar, and bicycling and walking.  Some people choose these other modes because they find them more convenient and more reliable than taking public transit.

In Boston, the MBTA saw its total number of transit trips fall 6% for bus routes and 2% for rail lines, in fiscal year 2017 compared to the previous year. As discussed in the Boston Globe, these overall decreases masked passenger increases in some parts of the system, such as on the subways during rush hours, and with some buses serving Chelsea and northeast Boston. Most of the ridership decline occurred during off-peak and weekend travel times when service is less frequent and potentially less convenient.

In 2017, the Boston region’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) conducted a survey of 1,000 rideshare company passengers. When survey participants were asked how they would have made their current trip if a rideshare option was not available, 42% say they would have taken transit. Some of this transit substitution takes place during commuter rush hours and the MAPC estimated that 12% of all rideshare trips during the morning or afternoon commute periods are substituting for a transit trip. The MAPC study also found that the highest frequency of rideshare trips occurred during the hours between 7 p.m. and midnight, when transit service runs less frequently.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) oversees TNCs and TNC driver and vehicle requirements in the Commonwealth. A DPU website provides rideshare statistics statewide and for counties, cities, and towns, by starting location. In 2017, TNCs provided 64.8 million rideshare trips starting in Massachusetts (178,000 per day on average). To put TNC use into perspective, there were more than 408 million public transit trips statewide (1.1 million per day) in the same year, and each day, more than 5 million vehicles travel over 154 million miles on all roads across Massachusetts.

The DPU data show that over half (54%) of the TNC trips statewide started in Boston and that TNC services are predominantly utilized by residents in urban areas. In addition to Boston, the communities with the greatest number of TNC trips were Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and Newton.  Cambridge had the most TNC usage per capita, with 64 trips per person per year. Outside of the Boston metro area, Nantucket had the greatest number of trips per person, 18 trips per year. In Western Massachusetts, Amherst and Hadley had the highest trips per person per year with 8 each. These locations have a high percentage of people without their own cars which could help explain these data.

TNCs do impact and take market share from public transit because of transit schedules, and the places and times transit provides service, are not always meeting the demands of the market and transit is not always convenient for riders. At the same time, TNC services have the potential to complement transit. The economic research study mentioned at the start of this article on whether Uber complements transit service examined 196 metropolitan areas with Uber and transit services. The researchers examined transit ridership trends (2004-2015) in those cities and looked at how transit ridership changed from two years before Uber arrived until two years after. The study found that on average, two years after Uber arrived, the metro area’s ridership was 5 to 8% higher than it would have been otherwise. This positive impact was seen predominantly in the cities with the smallest levels of initial ridership, suggesting that the presence of Uber may have made taking transit in those cities more viable, for example, by offering more flexible transportation access as well as connections to locations not directly served by transit. The researchers noted that consistent with this interpretation, after their analysis period, in 2016 and 2017, some cities partnered with Uber to have Uber supplement their smaller transit systems. These cities included Philadelphia, Tampa, Florida, and Dublin, California.

The MBTA is currently conducting a pilot program that allows eligible paratransit customers of the MBTA’s paratransit service, The RIDE, to use taxicabs, Uber, and Lyft for subsidized trips. This option can help these customers reach their destinations more quickly and directly and can also provide them with rides at times when paratransit is not typically available. UMass Amherst Civil Engineering professor Eric Gonzales is working on a MassDOT-funded study evaluating the pilot program.

TNCs and other rideshare options can help provide transportation access to areas for which it is not feasible to provide fixed-route transit service. There is often a geographic gap, referred to as the last mile, between where fixed-route services end and people’s final destinations. One possibility for last-mile service is micro transit, which combines elements from TNCs and transit. Microtransit includes features of traditional demand-response transit, including smaller transit vehicles that serve areas off main transit corridors and can vary based on passenger needs and requests. Microtransit also incorporates TNC features such as mobile smartphone applications to improve passengers’ ease of use, and longer service hours than traditional transit, even up to 24 hours per day. Microtransit can be provided by private companies, though two micro transit companies, Chariot and Bridj, serving the Boston area left due to lack of funding. Some transit systems, including in California and Detroit, are now considering adding micro transit options themselves. With public micro transit and public-private partnerships, one benefit, in addition to better more convenient service, could be fares that are more affordable than market-rate TNC trips, allowing them to be a viable equitable option for a larger range of riders. Such options deserve more exploration as communities and transit agencies look at ways to improve transportation access and mobility.

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