City bus services should adapt to ride-sharing
Port Arthur’s next generation of electric buses will be an improvement over the diesel version, but government should be thinking about an even with-it alternative — subsidized ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft.
Instead of having large and expensive buses traveling on fixed routes, cities like Port Arthur (and Beaumont) could issue vouchers to low-income residents that could be used for the growing phenomenon of ride-sharing. The user would not have to stand on a street corner and wait for a bus to come — and hope that it would drop him or her near the intended destination. And then repeat the process to get back home. A phone call to a pre-screened group of ride-sharing drivers could pick up the resident for a direct journey to the exact location.
Each one of those trips probably would cost less than $50 each. That might even cover the return trip too. Think about how many of those transactions could be paid for by the cost of a $700,000 new electric bus — in a Port Arthur fleet of 10 such vehicles.
This is not a wild idea. Arlington, Texas, is doing something similar right now. The city has replaced its fleet of charter buses with 10 commuter vans costing only $3 a ride or $10 for a weekly pass. A few other cities across the nation are going further. Altamonte Springs, Florida, has completely replaced its public transportation with subsidized Uber rides.
This shift is overdue. Mass transit in the United States is still locked into the old model of bus fleets serving entire cities, with all the attendant costs of maintenance, fuel, management, etc. Even the best-designed system will have a large bus with just a handful of passengers now and then — or a lot. It’s big, unwieldy and expensive, but for a long time, there was no real alternative for people (usually the poor) who didn’t have cars but needed to go to work or go shopping.
Ride-sharing can change that. It’s specific rather than general, putting one customer and driver together at the right time for the right destination. Cities could set up a smartphone app for the service or even dedicate a telephone number at City Hall to act as a go-between.
Uber and Lyft have gone from quirky startups to established companies. Across the country, millions of people use them every day. Customers go where they want when they want — in small vehicles. Drivers make a few bucks on the side; some even do it full-time.
That’s a big change in itself for American transportation — many young people are delaying buying their first cars for this reason — but the phenomenon is still evolving. A new ride-hailing service in San Diego called HopSkipDrive handles only minors. It’s being advertised as a safe way for parents to get their kids to and from school or soccer practice. In today’s hyper-creative app economy, other specialties like that will likely follow, such as ride-sharing services that specialize in doctor/hospital patients or shift workers normally used by bus riders.
Members of Congress and the Trump administration should get the federal government’s mass-transit bureaucracy thinking about these trends, looking for new ways to meet an old challenge. Years from now, this need probably won’t be met by old-fashioned bus fleets. At some point, the transition must begin.