“To help close the gap between public transit and your doorstep, we’re teaming up with Amtrak,” announced Lyft, Uber’s largest competitor, earlier this month. The partnership will allow Americans to ditch their cars and let the sharing economy deliver them seamlessly to and from the train station. Compelling, right?
For urban policymakers, maybe not.
Public-private partnerships (we can debate whether Amtrak is public or private later, rail nerds) seek to solve the first/last mile problem, and they do it very well. Multi-modal transport helps users overcome the friction of reaching a public transport hub, tempting many out of their cars.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) in Florida was amongst the first to launch such a scheme, named DirectConnect. The Authority pays up to $5 towards journeys made with Uber, a local taxi service, or a wheelchair-accessible taxi firm within designated zones, encompassing poorly served residential areas and starting or finishing at DirectConnect stops, mostly at the ends of bus lines. The scheme increases passenger numbers on primary bus services at a fraction of the cost of maintaining poorly performing branch lines, freeing up public resources to be deployed more efficiently elsewhere.
Schemes like this mean fewer cars and so less air pollution, more road space, lower demand for parking space, and lower atmospheric carbon emissions. What’s not to like?
Well for one thing, there’s little to suggest that this sort of multi-modal travel requires formal partnership: 25 per cent of Lyft’s journeys in Chicago are to a public transport node. Likewise, 40 per cent of Uber’s journeys in London start or end within 200 metres of an underground stop.
Data released by the firm last year after the opening of London’s Night Tube illustrated the dominance of these multi-modal journeys even more clearly. The number of journeys to or from an underground station during Night Tube hours has risen by 22 per cent since the service began. What’s more, pick-ups in Central London have fallen, while pick-ups at stations beyond the centre have risen by up to 300 per cent and 63 per cent on average. Clearly, consumers are well ahead of Lyft and Amtrak.
Click to expand. Image: Uber.
All this suggests that formal public-private partnerships may be unnecessary: if consumers can organise their own multi-modal transit, what need is there for expensive service integrations?
And by providing high quality real time transit data, metropolitan governments have reduced the need to partner with private companies to improve urban transportation. Applications such as CityMapper in the United Kingdom and Transit in the United States depend on free public-sector data showing, for example, when the next bus is due. Given access to open data, companies like these can give people the information they need to link multiple modes of transit.
Coupling its own data on urban transit with that made available by the private sector, CityMapper has gone so far as to provide its own ‘public’ transport service, or ‘social hyper-local multi-passenger pooled vehicle’, as the company calls it. The Night Rider, a 9pm to 5am bus route running through the heart of East London, from Aldgate to Highbury and Islington underground stations via Shoreditch and Dalston, will service an area neglected by public transport at night, a boost to the local economy along the way.
So what need is there for the public sector to partner with private companies, in an age of open metropolitan data? Principally, to ensure that no one is left behind.
Services like Uber require users to own a smartphone and have the ability to operate it, to have a bank account and to be comfortable making payments via an app, to be able bodied (very few ridesharing vehicles are accessible, leading to court cases across the pond), and, of course, to have the money to pay for what is ultimately a taxi, however cheap. Schemes such as DirectConnect allow the public sector to ensure that multimodal transport is accessible to the poor, the disabled, and those uncomfortable with smartphones by uniting public transport with accessible private vehicles that can be ordered by telephone and paid for with cash.
Partnerships like that between Uber and Transit, within the private sector but underpinned by open source public sector data, help us to navigate the multimodal city more efficiently than ever before. Public-private partnerships, on the other hand, are useful only in that they guarantee service accessibility – an aim that could perhaps be achieved by other means.
Alfie Shaw tweets as @shaw_alfie.