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.

Listening Session on Transit, and Active Transportation, and Mobility – A Recap

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

UMass Amherst faculty and UMTC Research Affiliates Dr. Song Gao and Dr. Eric Gonzales presented at the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation listening session on transit, active transportation, and mobility.

From left: UMass Amherst Professors Eric Gonzales and Song Gao talk with Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack and members of the Commission on the Future of Transportation at the Commission’s listening session at UMass Lowell. (UMTC)

In June, Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation in Massachusetts held a listening session to discuss transit, active transportation, and mobility in Massachusetts. This session, at UMass Lowell, was the third of the Commission’s five listening sessions around the state. Each session focused on different transportation topics as the Commission gathered ideas, information and public comment that it will then incorporate into a report with recommendations for transportation investments and policies in Massachusetts for the 2020-2040 period. The report will be sent to the Governor by December 2018.

As with the other listening sessions, this session included brief presentations by UMass researchers followed by an open comment period during which members of the public could offer their suggestions and feedback on the session topic or on future transportation in Massachusetts more generally. Recording of the listening sessions can be viewed on the Commission’s website (direct link to the third session here).

Two UMTC Research Affiliates, UMass Amherst professors Song Gao and Eric Gonzales, presented at this listening session. Gonzales opened his remarks by discussing that when thinking about transit services, it’s important to not only consider specific routes and schedules, but the larger picture of the benefits individuals and society can receive with transit services, including increased mobility and efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and reduced environmental impacts. He noted too that active transportation modes, such as walking and biking, can also achieve these same benefits. Gonzales then briefly reviewed the history of transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts, including highways and the MBTA subway system, noting how investments in infrastructure can have impacts long beyond the 20-year time horizon on which the Commission is focusing, and should be considered in that context.

Gonzales also spoke about transit’s important role as “a tool for social equity and for inclusion, providing mobility to people across the socioeconomic spectrum, age, and physical ability.” He mentioned challenges for transit, including providing bus access in spread-out rural and suburban areas, but also opportunities. These opportunities could include public-private partnerships, for example, between transit agencies and ridesharing companies such as Lyft and Uber. The MBTA is currently conducting a pilot project under which MBTA paratransit customers can take get rides through Uber or Lyft as an alternative to traditional paratransit vans, to help serve these customers’ needs better; Gonzales led a MassDOT-funded study to evaluate the pilot project. There are also opportunities for more integrated services with the use of technology, where the different travel modes for trips can be better connected and accessed, for example, through a smartphone app that integrates bus, ride-share, and bike-share access and user payments. Gonzales mentioned that Helsinki, Finland has been working on such an integrated transportation service system.  A recent Governing magazine article discussed the push for more seamless urban mobility in Helsinki, and similar efforts underway in the U.S.

Professor Gao’s presentation followed Gonzales’ and focused on the demand for transportation services and how this demand can be better managed. For someone traveling between an origin and a destination, Gao asked questions such as: are there alternatives to making this trip, is there flexibility on when the trip occurs – for example, what time of day – and what different travel modes are feasible for this trip and this particular traveler. Gao discussed how transportation policies and pricing can shape transportation demand and people’s decisions about when and how they travel, and if there are some trips they will not take at all. Some states are using higher pricing, also referred to as congestion pricing, to deter single-occupancy vehicles from traveling during the peak times. Gao said that one concern about congestion pricing is the equity impacts since low-income people are more adversely impacted by travel cost increases than are higher-income people.

Another approach for impacting travel demand is rewarding people who make more energy-efficient travel choices, for example, deciding to use transit or bicycle to work instead of driving, or who commute at off-peak hours. Gao mentioned a study from the Netherlands that provided participants with daily monetary and other (smartphone credits) rewards to encourage them to avoid driving during the morning rush hour. The study found that 30-40% of participants changed their behavior as a result of these incentives. Gao also discussed a study that she, and colleagues at UMass Amherst and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are conducting to develop a smartphone app to provide up-to-date travel information and incentivize people to change their travel choices to conserve energy. The app, for the Boston metro area, will use real and simulated personal travel data to reward people who change their departure times, routes, modes, or vehicles based on the app’s real-time data, and thereby reduce their energy consumption. The rewards based on energy savings will be able to be redeemed at local participating vendors. Data from preliminary testing of the app show positive results in terms of reducing energy use and travel times.

During the comment period following the presentations, a number of the commenters talked about the importance of having good infrastructure for biking and walking and better connections between modes. There was also discussion about the need to provide transportation options for the “last mile” section of trips, between where fixed-route transit services end and people’s final destinations. Ridesharing companies, also known as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) can help with those gaps.  A number of the speakers encouraged the creation of more public-private partnerships to help with last-mile service and for addressing the transportation needs of those populations, such as the elderly, disabled, and low-income, who are often underserved by current transportation options and infrastructure. Professor Gao raised the point that there are great opportunities for partnership between public transit and TNCs, but that the goals of TNCs may not always be aligned with public goals since private companies are usually seeking to maximize their profits.

MassDOT Research on Options for ADA Paratransit Services

by Eric Gonzales, Assistant Professor, UMass Amherst, and Matt Mann, Research Program Coordinator

Governor Baker (right) at the Ride, Uber and Lyft ADA Paratransit partnership press conference (MassLive)

One of MassDOT’s research project titled “Optimizing ADA Paratransit Operations with Taxi and Ride Share Programs”, had its kick-off meeting in December 2017 and is well underway.  This $152k research project began in December with the project kickoff meeting scheduled for December 14th at MassDOT.   This project is Championed by Ben Schutzman, Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s (MBTA) and will be aimed at optimizing programs to serve some paratransit trips by taxi or other mobility services in order to minimize overall system costs.

Rising ridership on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) paratransit services, such as MBTA’s “The Ride”, pose a challenge due to the high costs of operating this required service.  The objective of this project is to optimize programs to serve some paratransit trips by taxi or other mobility services in order to minimize system cost. The benefits to MBTA will be to lower the cost of providing service in order to accommodate the anticipated increase in ridership.  The challenge of managing a demand-response transportation service, for people with disabilities, is the system operation depends on the demand of the traveler behavior and supply structure and costs.  As of March 1, 2017, a pilot program now allows eligible ADA paratransit customers on “The Ride” were able to use taxicabs, Uber, or Lyft for a subsidized trip.  The goal is to provide insights about how the operation and use of the system is changing under the pilot program and then to provide guidance about how to manage a multimodal ADA program that provides users with a greater range of choices than they have had in the past.  Although the scope is tied closely to an analysis of the MBTA system, the insights are likely to have implications for the ADA paratransit systems elsewhere in Massachusetts.  A recent Boston Globe article provides an update to March 2017 pilot study, the increase in demand and some initial cost per ride numbers.

Eric Gonzales, UMass Amherst, the project’s Principal Investigator states “the project will allow us to use modeling tools to analyze how coordinating ADA paratransit services with taxis is changing the experience for customers and costs of the agency.  Our goal is to identify ways to provide cost-effective and high-quality service for customers with disabilities as part of an equitable and sustainable transit system for the Boston region.”

US: Transit Agencies Cautious on Electric Buses Despite Bold Forecasts – Dr. Christofa and Dr. Pollitt Weigh in

by: Melissa Paciulli, UMTC Manager of Research

electric buses
Chicago Tribune, 2017

One Center Affiliates, Dr. Eleni Christofa and Dr. Krystal Pollitt recently completed research for MassDOT on evaluating electric and other zero emission buses in the U.S. As part of this research, they completed an extensive review of transit agencies’ experience with electric buses across the country.  We asked them to weigh in on a recent article published by Nicholas Groom, from Reuters, December 12, 2017 on MassTransit, which reported that “more than 65,000 public buses plying U.S. roads today, just 300 are electric. Among the challenges: EVs are expensive, have limited range and are unproven on a mass scale.”

Dr Christofa and Dr. Pollitt, argue that based on their findings, “Electric buses have the potential to expand across the fleets of U.S. transit agencies; limiting factors have been driving range and costs. Recent advances in battery technology are moving towards overcoming these hurdles with increases in energy density and decreased battery costs.”

MassDOT Kicks Off Research On Options for ADA Paratransit Services

by Melissa Paciulli, Manager of Research and Development

MassDOT is excited to announce the kickoff of the research project titled “Optimizing ADA Paratransit Operations with Taxi and Ride Share Programs.”   This $152k research project has a project kickoff meeting scheduled for December 14th at MassDOT’s Headquarters in Boston.  This project is Championed by Ben Schutzman, from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), and the research study will be led by Professor Eric Gonzales at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  The aim of this project is to examine how optimizing programs to serve some paratransit trips by taxi or other mobility service in order to minimize overall system costs.  Rising ridership on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) paratransit services, such as MBTA’s “The Ride”, pose a challenge due to the high costs of operating these required services.

As of March 1, 2017, a pilot program now allows eligible ADA paratransit customers on “The Ride” to use taxicabs, Uber, or Lyft for subsidized trips.  The new research study seeks to gain insights about how the operation and use of the system is changing under the pilot program, and then to provide guidance for managing a multimodal-ADA program that gives customers more ride choices.  Although the scope of the project is tied closely to the MBTA system, the insights from this research are likely to have implications for the ADA paratransit systems elsewhere in Massachusetts.

When contacted recently, Professor Gonzales said, “I am excited to start this project with graduate student Charalampos Sipetas.  The project will allow us to use modeling tools to analyze how coordinating ADA paratransit services with taxis is changing the experience for customers and costs for transit agencies.  Our goal is to identify ways to provide cost-effective and high quality service for customers with disabilities as part of an equitable and sustainable transit system for the Boston region.”

Evolving Strategies for Demand Responsive Transit


For people who are unable to drive or use conventional transit (e.g., fixed route buses and trains), getting around can be a real challenge. One group is receiving increasing attention in the transportation community: people with physical or mental disabilities that prevent them from being able to use existing buses and trains. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires transit agencies to operate curb-to-curb paratransit with ¾ mile of fixed route bus services for these. Although ADA paratransit constitutes only 1% of transit trips in U.S., the services make up 8% of the operating costs. Furthermore, demand for ADA paratransit increased by 41% from 2000 to 2010, and the trend of increasing demand and increasing cost is expected to continue as the American population gets older [1]. This presents a major challenge for transit agencies: equitable service must be provided for customers with disabilities, but increasing costs threaten the ability of agencies to continue providing adequate ADA paratransit along with conventional services. Recent and ongoing research at UMass Amherst addresses multiple strategies for managing ADA paratransit needs.

One way to approach the problem of mounting paratransit costs is to focus on optimizing the operations. Recent studies of ADA paratransit demand and operation patterns in New Jersey have shown that the total operating cost in a service region can be modeled based on the area of the region, the rate that trips are requested per time, and the allowable time window for an on-time pick-up [2].  There are ways to geographically align service regions to cover large areas in order to minimize the negative effects of making customers transfer.  It can be beneficial to break up large regions into zones such that one zone provides service within a dense urban core, and another zone provides service to more distributed areas [3].

Another approach to the problem is to manage demand by incentivizing users to travel at times of day when there is excess system capacity. The current ADA regulation requires agencies to schedule paratransit service within one hour of the customer’s requested pick-up time and to charge no more than 1.5 times the fare of conventional transit service. Peaks in demand at certain times of day leave agencies with no choice but to purchase more vehicles and hire more drivers, but these resources are costly when they go unused at other times of day. A time-varying fare, within the ADA constraints, could incentivize users with flexible schedules to travel at less costly times of the day to improve the system’s overall efficiency [4].

An emerging question is what role existing ADA paratransit should play in serving this population in the long term. We know that shared-ride services are most efficient in areas with dense demand.  In the suburban fringe, there are many trips that could be served more cost-effectively by taxis or on-demand mobility services (e.g., Uber, Lyft). In the Boston area, where the average cost of serving a one-way paratransit trip is $46.88, the MBTA is piloting a program to subsidize taxi trips for some users [5]. Despite concerns about vehicles being physically equipped and drivers having appropriate training to serve customers with disabilities, demand responsive services that allow vehicles to be shared by multiple user groups hold great promise for bringing down the cost of providing high-quality ADA paratransit service. Perhaps the changes that emerging technologies are bringing for mobility services will be a great equalizer that can afford the same transportation choices to people with disabilities as the rest of the general public. One thing is certain, the future users are going to require flexible and efficient transportation systems to meet their diverse needs.

By: Dr. Eric Gonzales

  1. American Public Transit Association (APTA) (2012). 2012 Public Transportation Factbook. Available online from:
  2. Rahimi, M., Amirgholy, M., Gonzales, E.J. (2014). Continuum approximation modeling of ADA paratransit operations in New Jersey. Paper Number 14-4864. Transportation Research Board 93rd Annual Meeting, 12–16 January, Washington, D.C.
  3. Rahimi, M., Gonzales, E.J. (2015). Systematic evaluation of zoning strategies for demand responsive transit. Paper Number 15-4023. Transportation Research Board 94th Annual Meeting, 11–15 January, Washington, D.C.
  4. Amirgholy, M., Gonzales, E.J. (2015). Demand responsive transit systems with time dependent demand: User equilibrium, system optimum, and management strategy. Transportation Research Part B, doi:10.2016/j.trb.2015.11.006.
  5. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). Riding the T. Available online from: