Beyond our major cities, many Americans live in low density suburbs, where an on-demand Uber bus could be the future of public transportation.
Some our cities are dense and walkable, and rich with public transportation options. But outside of our biggest metro areas, millions of us live in suburbs where public transportation is either in poor condition or nonexistent entirely. Further, most American cities are automobile-oriented, which makes getting to work extremely challenging for those who cannot afford a car or those who cannot drive.
In these low-density, car-based suburbs, bus service is patchy and rides are lengthy, leaving some our most economically disenfranchised citizens with few options. Additionally, there are disabled people, folks with medical conditions, and senior citizens who simply can’t operate a motor vehicle. This is where the advent of ride sharing technology has the power to change millions of lives.
Lower cost option for cities?
Public transportation systems in the suburbs that suffer from low ridership are especially expensive to run. That’s why low-density cities, places where the vast majority of their residents get around in private automobiles, are flirting with the idea of replacing their buses with subsidized Ubers.
Two cities in Florida, one in the Orlando area, Altamonte Springs, and one in the Tampa area, Pinellas Park, already have partnerships with Uber to help their residents get around by subsidizing trips within their city limits. Pinellas Park claims they’re already saving a fortune, since the program costs about 25 percent of the two bus lines that they phased out in favor of the subsidy program.
Bridj: The Uber bus
There’s a Boston-based startup named Bridj that functions like a private bus service, and is catering their services to local governments. Unlike a traditional bus, Bridj doesn’t have set routes and functions like most ride-sharing apps.
Bridj already has 14-passenger vans roving the streets of Boston, and is now poised to expand their operations nationwide, by pioneering public-private partnerships for bus service in Kansas City. The city has contracted them to improve public transportation options for local residents and fill in gaps in their transportation infrastructure.
Bad news bears
It’s not all rainbows and butterflies for the transition away from public buses. Uber and other ridesharing applications require a smartphone, and there’s a significant portion of the population that doesn’t have one.
When you stop and think about the economically marginalized populations that depend on public transportation, especially in car-dependent suburbs, the percentage of people without a smartphone could be extremely high. Also, disabled people can encounter difficulties hailing an accessible uber, which can make Uber buses very poor substitutes for the handicapped.
In essence, privatizing public transport may leave the most vulnerable in our society with even less transportation options if the transition isn’t managed correctly.
Replacing public buses with ride sharing technology is a win-win in many ways. Getting to work would become easier for millions of people who don’t drive, but still call the low-density car suburbs home. Nevertheless, as is the case with any change in public policy, it’s important to consider the unintended consequences of changing the way things currently work.