Just a month ago, the future was looking rosy for ride-hailing companies. Uber and Lyft, products of the groundswell movement the sharing economy earlier this decade, were about to reach a pinnacle in their growth. Ride-hailing (or ridesharing) was taking on a new definition. It was no longer going to be defined by the size of the car that picked you up, the number of seats in a vehicle or the route to or from the local airport from a local neighbor.
Buses were the next, logical step in the ever-evolving concept of ride-hailing.
In July, the two companies were spotted carrying out acquisition talks with the ride-hailing app company Skedaddle. Another result of the sharing economy concept, Skedaddle made its ripples in a much bigger pond: bus transport and charter ride-hailing.
And it's no surprise. Brooking Institute predicted in 2017 that by 2025, the sharing economy will be worth as much as $335 billion. That includes all four sectors of the "peer-to-peer" economy, but one thing is clear with the emergence of online booking apps like Skedaddle: models that promote shared transportation and accommodation experiences are at the top the list when it comes to consumer preferences.
But that doesn’t mean that all of North America's largest cities are necessarily going to support the commercial expansion of ride-hailing companies.
In a surprise decision last week, New York City Council voted to restrict the growth of ride-hailing services within its city limits. Although the vote was largely focused on the impact of companies like Lyft and Uber, which had successfully competed against the city's long-standing taxi industry, the decision isn't good news for companies that want to expand ride-hailing bus and scooter services within city limits.
And New York City isn't the only metropolitan area to think twice about unchecked expansion of such services. Vancouver, BC has already imposed restrictions, opting to support taxi companies that have complained that ride-hailing cuts into their profits.
Smaller towns are also swapping bus services for ride hailing.
Other towns and cities however, see a benefit in private initiatives that expand the accessibility of transportation. In March, the city of Arlington, Texas voted to scrap its bus service in favor of the ride-hailing service Via. Residents can hail one of 10 ridesharing vans in the city for the price of $3 a ride or $10 a week.
Arlington is only one of a growing number of cities and towns to sink their money into ridesharing choices and scrap public transit options. The town of Summit, New Jersey pays Uber to shuttle its residents to and from the central train depot, while up north, the town of Innsifil in Ontario has found it far more economical to hire Uber to transport residents and visitors than to invest in a city bus service. The average cost to the city for an Uber ride in Innisfil is just over $5.00.
That's not to say that either New York or Vancouver, which both rely on publicly funded transit, will likely be switching to ridesharing bus services any time soon. But what both cities highlight is that there is one sector of the consumer base that ride-hailing services are able to fill a gap for: the cities' aging and disabled population.
Only about 20 percent of New York's cabs accommodate wheelchairs and in a city that has made an art out of hailing cabs from the street. Identifying that one accessible taxi among hundreds, as one resident said, is next to impossible.
"It's like an Elvis sighting," Jean Ryan of the advocacy group, Disabled in Action, recently said.
The Vancouver metropolitan area has also had its problems with ensuring there are enough wheelchair-equipped taxis on the street. British Columbia law requires taxi companies to prioritize ride hailing services for disabled customers. Recent stories of a wheelchair-bound residents waiting hours for a taxi or being turned away from over-booked services are giving voice to a growing number of the province's residents that are calling for more ridesharing services.
For Uber, Lyft, Skedaddle and other startups that are willing to find new ways to bring those services to mobile-equipped travelers, regulatory setbacks are all part of the politics of building confidence in a ridesharing industry. After all, it really isn't city or state governments that will have the last say as to whether a cutting-edge service that can harness the resources of dozens of charter bus services and offer them for a fraction of the cost. It's the residents, faced with rising transportation costs and diminishing services as they get older, who will build the case for transportation that can really meet their needs.
Image credit: Uber
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.