Is the “Uberization’ of public transportation the future for Texas cities?

Photo by Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson

Traffic congestion in Austin and other major Texas cities is notorious and continues to worsen. According to a recent study by a transportation analytics firm INRIX, Dallas, Houston and Austin are the 7th, 11th and 13th most congested urban areas in the United States.

Many believe that adding light-rail lines and more bus lanes will encourage more commuters to take public transport and leave their cars at home. However, despite its population growth and large investments by Capital Metro to improve services, Austin’s bus actual daily ridership has fallen 20 percent since 2012 (130,000 boardings a day in 2012 vs. 102,000 a day in 2016)

How is this possible? Recent efforts to transform parts of Austin into a pedestrian and transit-friendly “compact city” appear to be successful. There are now many residential towers in downtown, much denser student housing options around UT campus and new urban nodes like The Domain — a shopping and entertainment district with more than three thousand apartment units. Although increased rail lines and bus routes may benefit these areas, only a small percentage of the population in the greater metropolitan region lives in them. Since its founding, Austin has been (and will be for the foreseeable future) a “landscape city”, that is, a low-density city with the majority of the population living in well-established neighborhoods of single-family houses shaded by a phenomenal urban forest.

In landscape cities, solving transportation problems requires strategic investments to nurture and grow the areas that follow the compact city model but, on the other hand, we must also acknowledge the reality of large swaths of the landscape city that are not going away. The lack of density is in the DNA of Texas cities; it is the reason why they are very attractive places to live for most people. The lack of density also makes it very inefficient to run fixed-route transit systems that can cover entire cities. In fact, according to a recent study by UT’s Urban Information Lab, Austin has several major “transit desertareas within its city limits (Figure 1, red areas = transit deserts)— areas where many residents who need transit services cannot access them.  Rather than just reroute buses to these underserved neighborhoods (potentially creating transit deserts elsewhere), we should rethink how public transit can operate in the 21st century.

Transit Desert Map in Austin Texas (the darker the color, the worse the transit service)
Austin Transit Deserts (the darker the color, the worse the transit service)

 

New technologies and the advent of the “sharing economy” inspire us to reconsider how we interact with and move through society. Particularly, this new sharing economy provides access to data, previously unused resources and more choices. By applying the concept of a shared economy to our public transit, we may find new solutions to our mobility problems. Essentially, we need an “Uberization” of public transit services to transform how we approach transportation issues.

In fact, public transit “Uberization” has already begun. Many cities across the U.S. are teaming up with ride-hailing companies to provide on-demand public transit as well as first/last mile-connections to their transit services. By connecting ride-hailing apps with our public buses and rail, we can ensure that residents seamlessly move from one form of transportation to another.  These services appeal to our desire for individual flexibility.

In Austin, the app Pickup was launched last June by Capital Metro as a pilot program that allows customers to request a ride using their phone.  The service matches the destination of travelers in the same area and picks them up within 15 minutes. This free, on-demand ride-hailing bus service operates three days a week and covers only a limited area of the city but could expand to the entire city.

Another option is fixed-route, on-demand bus services like Ford’s Chariot, which provides more flexibility than traditional bus routes and improves accessibility in transit desert areas. In order to use the service, riders sign up through an app and provide their commute information (time and distance). 

The app will give them pick up times at locations along Chariot routes. A group of 50 or more people can also ask to establish a new route in their area. A cross between a ride-hailing app and a bus route, these services provide more flexibility than traditional public transit while also keeping costs low. Also, we should look to other countries for innovative ideas such as the colectivos in South America, operating as shared taxis that run on fixed routes.

We also have unsung examples at home. For many years, the United States has run a dependable on-demand, to-your-door, public transportation system: the yellow school bus. According to American School Bus Council, every school day of 2015, nearly 484,000 school buses transported 27 million children to and from school and school-related activities. However, most school buses are used only twice a day, once in the early morning and again in the afternoon. Local governments, transit agencies and private enterprises should consider partnering with the school systems to turn these school buses into an on-demand type of transit service during idle hours. Fiscally, this would help both the transit agencies and the school districts by allowing shared use of limited resources.

There are many potential options for an “Uberization” of transportation services. As Texas cities continues to grow, we must embrace innovation and creativity to reduce traffic congestion and ensure all residents have their mobility needs met.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Junfeng Jiao

Director, UT Urban Information Lab

Juan Miró

Distinguished professor, UT-Austin

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