Dear governments, carpooling is not a panacea for public transport in poor condition

“Everyone wants free public transport, but no one wants to pay for it” is a statement I often hear written about mobility. But an equally pressing challenge is often left out of the conversation: equal access to public transport.

This is a difficult problem for transport providers. They have to deal with the service of the busiest roads. This is often done at the expense of more disparate locations and times. And the farther you live from heavily populated urban centers or need services outside the standard peak times for daily commuters, the more likely you are to experience transport poverty.

In recent years, we have seen a growth in public-private solutions. This is particularly the case in the United States and the United Kingdom. Instead of opening new bus routes to meet the needs of residents of underserved communities or increasing night bus schedules, for example, private providers are supplementing current offerings.

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But does this solve the problem of inadequate transportation? Or does it create a more problematic trend? I decided to take a look.

Third-shift workers are a constant challenge for transport providers

transportation challenges
Credit: Danny Lines

You might not think Florida would be the bastion of progress in accessible transportation, but you’d be surprised. Let’s look at some specific solutions offered by Florida’s Pinellas Suncoast Transportation Authority (PTSA):

PSTA bus service on many routes ends between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., creating a problem for people working nights or early mornings, such as restaurant workers and security guards.

Many of these residents have below-average incomes that qualify them for low-income support (e.g., offering an $11 monthly bus pass, over 80% off the fare regular).

Yet, with no public transit service available at less-demanded times, commuters relied on friends or family with a vehicle, relatively expensive ride-sharing or taxi services, or walking and biking to commute to work – often in the middle of the night.

In response, in 2016 the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) launched a program called Late shift which partners with a ride-sharing service like Uber as well as local taxis to serve late-night or early-morning workers. Participating residents can take up to 25 free rides to or from work per month between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

This is an excellent initiative, although it should be remembered that people use public transport for reasons that are also valid to get to work.

The first mile to last mile journey challenge

Working at night can make it difficult to get to work. While trains in major cities may run, connecting bus services may not.

And, the farther you live from urban areas, the less likely you are to have access to micromobility options like renting an scooter or electric bike near you.

A practical solution is to use private providers to offer the first mile, last mile solutions. Pinellas County offers an additional program called Direct connection in partnership with Uber and United Taxi. It offers up to $5 off a round trip for workers to or from a designated PSTA bus stop between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.

90% of the program’s funding (approximately $500,000 per year) comes from the Florida Commission for State Disadvantaged Transportation, with the PSTA providing a 10% local match.

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In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has called for a similar proposal in 2019 to improve the mobility of people who work late by connecting them to the metro. Unfortunately, the bidding process appears to have stalled due to COVID-19.

These are great programs – in theory. Walking to and from night transport can be dangerous. This is especially the case in areas where street lighting and sidewalks are inadequate.

Do public-private partnerships create an excuse for government inactivity?

I fear these programs are giving cities a free pass in building safer spaces and outlier transportation. Especially when the biggest beneficiaries are private providers like Uber, which are subsidized by public transport authorities.

But what is the alternative? Will the increase in off-peak buses lead to more empty buses? Does it risk wasting fuel and labor costs with no real benefit? Or will people use public transport more when frequency increases? Can the needs of the public still be consistently met when governments rely on for-profit companies to deliver essential services?

I recently spoke with Alex Shapland-Howes, co-founder and CEO of UK mobility startup Tandemon the balance between the structural failures of governments to adequately tackle transport poverty and the role of private companies in bridging the gap.

shared transportation
An example of a flyer for carpooling animated by Tandem. Credit: Tandem

Tandem works with local taxis, minicabs, coach companies and employers to provide shared shuttle services to low-income workers in areas underserved by public transport outside cities and major towns.

According to Shapland-Howes, in the UK, “a quarter of people of working age live in areas that are both very deprived and poorly served by public transport – as more than 25% of bus lines have been removed in the last decade.”

More than a quarter of UK bus routes have been cut in the past decade. This has combined with economic conditions to increase transport poverty. This occurs disproportionately in areas already suffering from severe deprivation. And has ripple effects for local communities and social isolation.

The problem is much bigger than getting to work or home cheaply after a night out.

About Kevin Strickland

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