Usage of Uber software by Marin Transit’s on-demand shuttle van service Connect is one of many public-private partnerships studied in a recent national report on transit and mobility. Photo courtesy Marin Transit.

Bay Area cities and transit agencies are partnering with private companies to expand coverage and accessibility — transportation challenges they were tussling with long before COVID-19 lockdowns reduced ridership and farebox revenue this spring.

COVID-19 “will add the pressure for agencies to innovate, and ridesharing could be a big part of the picture,” said Joe Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, which studies partnerships between public agencies and private transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft.

Fallout from the pandemic is forcing agencies to reckon with changing transit commute patterns, new work-at-home arrangements, and the additional incentivization of car use from low gas prices — concerns presented in a report Schwieterman co-authored entitled 21 Key Takeaways from Partnerships between Public Transit Providers & Transportation Network Companies in the United States. Published in April, it highlighted the ways in which ride-hailing service partnerships can tap new markets and stretch resources, examining them to understand when they are advantageous, face hurdles, or offer lessons.

For instance, programs subsidizing rides by a fixed amount per trip are administratively simpler and easier for consumers to understand. In addition, on-demand programs are poised to become more common in rural and suburban areas.

Most public-private partnerships start with a need to improve mobility in areas where transit is lacking, as well as to respond to challenges or policy goals like reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Ridership tends to be made up of people needing first/last-mile transit connections, ADA paratransit service, and connections that accommodate late-night travel.

Partnerships also are fueled by a progressive approach to alternative modes of transportation like bike-sharing. In one prominent Bay Area example, Lyft operates the Bay Wheels bike-share service under contracts with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the cities of Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose.

To gain a better sense of how recent partnerships may be ramping up, the Bay Area Monitor spoke with transit officials in Marin and Contra Costa counties, home to a pair of new public-private partnerships. They shared details about their expectations for improvement, and where more partnerships could occur.

The Software Option
Marin Transit and the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) announced a partnership with Uber in which the ride-sharing company’s software began powering on-demand transit services through the Uber app on July 1 as part of the new Connect2Transit program. Basically, Uber’s software integrated two existing programs that were set to expire this year: Connect (Marin Transit’s on-demand shuttle van service) and Get2SMART (run by TAM to help commuters make first/last-mile connections to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit stations).

The app makes it possible for riders to see a complete mobility option list, including fixed-route bus systems, on-demand Connect service, and discounts off shared rides.

The partnership will enable Marin Transit and TAM to realize cost savings, as well as expand accessibility and coverage. For example, the new service area will include a 2.5-mile radius around SMART stations in Marin.

Marin Transit planners consider the Uber app the next phase in its Connect program, which originated in 2018 with technology partner Via. During the first year of the Connect pilot, Marin Transit’s planning team suggested performance targets of four passengers per hour and $15 per passenger trip as part of the evaluation process. But it was not meeting those targets, according to a June 1 staff report.

Marin Transit officials are looking to see if they can get closer to those targets now and reach the Connect program’s target ridership: older adults and people with disabilities.

“We’re beginning some community outreach with senior facilities and leveraging our communication channels with partner organizations through the county,” said Cody Lowe, planning analyst at Marin Transit.

Meanwhile, TAM is offering passengers fare discount vouchers on shared rides operated by Uber’s TNC driver network to and from SMART stations and other transit hubs. The rider pays an initial $4 for UberPool, and then qualifies for a discount of up to $5.

TAM also is partnering with local employers like Kaiser Permanente and the County of Marin, who will help subsidize rides for their employees who use the discount program when traveling to and from job centers.

Transportation agencies are “dealing with the recovery from COVID-19 and shelter in place so there’s a lot of focus on being judicious with limited resources and addressing fiscal realities,” said Derek McGill, planning manager at TAM, which expects to save $20,000 and $30,000 over the Uber contract’s two-year life.

Mobility Storm
Well before the coronavirus outbreak, City of Oakley Mayor Kevin Romick said he and other Contra Costa transportation officials were preparing for a “mobility storm,” given a mass of jobs, commutes, congestion, and transit blowing in.

The question was, “How do we marry all these together to make better commute options, rather than adding more cars to our already crowded roads?” Romick said.

Oakley’s City Council approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in May with South San Francisco-based Wayfarer, which does business as Glydways, to evaluate the use of Glydways’ operating software. It pilots an on-demand transit system made up of small, autonomous electric “Glydcars” that travel on fixed, narrow guideways. The technology is not currently in operation, but YouTube videos show what it’ll be like to ride.

Such a system is key to attracting passengers that cities and transit agencies are keen to recover, said Eliot Temple, vice president of business development at Glydways. It relies on app-based ticketing so commuters can book a car with their mobile device and then get on and off at designated boarding bays that help minimize crowding. Each passenger or group traveling together (up to four) also travels in their own Glydcar. They are wheelchair, stroller, and bike accessible, and designed to be cleaned and disinfected hourly, or more.

The company thinks it’s possible to develop a 5.78-mile system to serve Oakley’s future Amtrak station and the Antioch BART station, with extensions to the under-construction Contra Costa Logistics Center. Completion of the center — expected to create 2,800 full- and part-time jobs — could occur by 2022, depending on securing tenants.

Glydways estimates its mass transit system could move 10,000 people per hour at 90 percent less than the cost of rail.

Romick said he and other officials are “conceptually thinking” the system could run on the BNSF Railway right of way — just under 12 feet is needed — and on State Route 160 to Antioch BART. The feasibility study will determine the ultimate route, Romick said.

In addition to Oakley, Glydways has MOUs with the cities of Sacramento and South San Francisco, Temple said. It’s also working toward agreements with Concord, Brentwood, and Richmond with the intent of a pilot system in each jurisdiction, he said.

Interest “is reflective of how our solution meets the demand and long-overdue improvement of transit today: affordability, scalable capacity, and a genuinely socially equitable solution with a peaceful rider experience,” Temple said.

For all the benefits envisioned, public-private partnerships aren’t without risks, according to the 21 Key Takeaways report. For starters, agencies must accept a certain amount of trial and error, grapple with cost versus control issues, and be patient while riders adjust their travel habits.

The pursuit of innovation for innovation’s sake could get the best of some agencies, too. Some programs die after their pilot phase, some of which could be attributed to a weak business plan, according to the DePaul report.

The report includes analysis that’s relevant to the Bay Area, where the need to fill mobility gaps and deter driving is an ongoing challenge. Here are a few of the trends the researchers said to watch for in the next phase of TNC-agency partnerships.

First, they think agencies should pursue fare payment integration for on-demand programs, employing the trip planning and booking platforms their local transit systems use. Successful promotion involves positioning the program as a part of a larger transit system rather than a separate initiative.

Second, on-demand programs in suburban and rural areas with relatively low population densities are “quietly gaining momentum,” the report found. Cost is a driving force behind the rollout. The report cited a transit agency representative who said its on-demand program is successful as a first/last-mile service because demand is too low to justify fixed-route service to the area.

On a cautionary note, some officials pointed to a “relative dearth of technical resources available to design effective programs in these areas,” according to the report. People also may not be as aware of transit options in car-dependent suburban and rural regions. That makes marketing a challenge.

Third, agencies will get better at evaluating partnerships based on their familiarity with available data, expanding technical capabilities of TNCs, and the sharing of information among stakeholders.

Like Marin Transit and TAM, DePaul researchers expect more agencies will turn to TNCs as a way to improve travel options for seniors and people with disabilities.

Lastly, they expect more deals. While many of the early on-demand partnerships involved smaller cities and small- to mid-size agencies, large-scale partnerships are likely to emerge and mirror trends in Europe.

In fact, TAM and Marin Transit’s agreement with Uber represented the ride-sharing company’s first software-as-a-service transit partnership. It’s likely that deal will pave a path for more going forward, according to an article by TechCrunch.

“The view about the future of transit has changed dramatically as we look to a future with more flexible work schedules, and greater need for faster service,” Schwieterman said. “It positions these partnerships pretty well.”

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.