Once seen as yet another offbeat idea that comprised the sharing economy, ridesharing has turned into a huge business with the boom of companies such as Lyft and Uber. But these firms, which have started to enter partnerships with automakers such as GM, have also become integral to public transportation ecosystems in cities across the world. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the ability to snag a ride using a smartphone app has helped to transform commuting across the U.S.
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) recently released a report that confirms what many observers have assumed about ridesharing — it helps urban transport systems become more efficient and spurs demand for public transportation services. It was not too long ago when the term ridesharing referred to vanpools, car pool matching services or the (in)famous “casual carpool” system that has saved commuters on toll money in the Bay Area. Now technology is allowing for even more flexibility to get around town, and the result is a rapid shift in the very concept of mobility.
The APTA’s research was based on interviews with public transport agency officials, data from 4,500 mobility customers and data from ridesharing companies including Lyft. Research focused on seven cities; Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
First, the report found a correlation between those who embrace ridesharing and the amount they spend on transportation. Respondents who the study described as “supersharers” (those who frequently used ridesharing services for errands, recreation and commuting) generally used public transportation the most and had a lower rate of car ownership. And another trend that could promise to be a boon for public health: More frequent users of ridesharing services also tended to be more physically active.
Another important aspect of ridesharing is that it fills crucial gaps in public transport services. As anyone who has had a few too many during a night out will attest, ridesharing is often used between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m., a time at which bus or rail transport options are practically nonexistent in many cities. And again, on the public health and safety front, ridesharing has probably saved lives. Over 100 respondents said that a factor in using a service such as Lyft was alcohol consumption, and this information was volunteered — it was not an explicit choice offered to survey participants.
While ridesharing has rapidly become an important transport option, the APTA survey suggests that these companies’ business models and technologies have potential to improve paratransit service across the country. Paratransit trips (van or taxi services generally used by someone with a physical disability or the elderly) have surged in both numbers and price in recent years, which strains municipal finances and can leave citizens who rely on such services vulnerable to budget cuts. But the technology behind ridesharing services have the potential to complement paratransit services, allowing such transport options to be delivered more efficiently and cost effectively.
Among this sector’s larger challenges, however, is being able to keep such ridesharing services affordable so that all of society can access them. While ridesharing companies tout their affordability, whether such costs are light on the pocketbook or not is relative: The participants in the APTA survey had an average income of well over $90,000 annually. Finding ways to integrate ridesharing with other public transport options even more could be a lift to poorer citizens, who frequently lack the information and access to technology that would allow them to benefit from ridesharing even more. Fare and service integration, always a challenge in metropolitan areas, could be one way to make all of these transport systems work together even more seamlessly — which in the end could allow for easier mobility for even more citizens.
Image credit: SPUR (Flickr)