Dear Transit Tammy,
Theres this guy. Lets call him Smyft. He says he wants to be with me, which: Yay! Ive been the cat lady of public transit services for as long as I can remember. OK, Im a little run down. My infrastructure is old, and I can be bit flaky, not showing up as frequently as Ive promised. And then here comes this amazing guy
Smyft has promised me a lot. He says hell help fill my gaps in service. Im a small transit agency, and I dont have the wherewithal to get moving at night. Smyft does! Hell provide the labor. Hell provide the vehicles. For a price, everyone in my citycan have fast, reliable transit service, even people whodont own a car.
But Tammy, Ive heard the horror stories. Private mobility guys like Smyft, his brother, SUber, and his cousin, SCar2Go,promise a lot, but theyre not always into sharing—like, data sharing. My job is to help everyone get around, but his is to make money. Tammy, how do I make sure Im not beingused?
– (Nervously) Moving Toward Ardor
Worry not. Youre not the only (aging, struggling) lady with severalsexy new options. Its scary, but transit agencies acrossthe country are taking the leap. In March, par exemple,Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in Floridastarted covering half the cost of a local Uber—er, SUber—ride, up to $3 per trip. Not too expensive, right? Even little agency like you could handle that kind of low-stakes partnership.
But you dont want to get your heart broken. You’re right to be nervous, because companies like Smyft can be after theaffluentconsumerswho can afford smartphones and a travel splurge. And theycan getcompetitive, too. Some research shows that people sometimes choose between transit and rideshare—andtransit loses.
But the costs of waiting this one out are big.Just today, in fact, the public transit research and advocacy group TransitCenter releaseda report for girls (and guys) in exactly your situation. Itsmain message:Suitors like Smyft may be almost too hot to believe, but they can be great potential partners, ready for real commitment.
So here’s a very quick guide to making sure you, sweet MTA, don’t get hurt.
When you’re approached—or approaching!—a ride-share, ride-hail, or bikeshare company, think of itas a big opportunity. Let’s face it, MTA. Sometimes you’re a stick in the mud. It takes a long time to set up your contracts, and you’rebound by regulations that might not make sense anymore. “We cant maintain this type of process in our procurement and stay nimble,” saysLisa Walton, CTO at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Think of Smyft’s overtures as an excuse to look at your internal rules and decide if they’re meant for this century.
Stick up for yourself, lady! Lean in! You might have a different priorities than your new beau. He’s interested in proprietary secrets; you need to know how many people are traveling downtown, and when. He’s into idling in your bike lanes and taking up all your parking spots; you have other friends who need a bit of parking time, too. Luckily, you have some leverage. The TransitCenter report puts it this way: “Who run the world/ Girls.”
Wait, no—sorry. Actually what itsaid is, “The public sector controls valuable assets, like parking spaces and street right-of-way, that can be used to negotiate for contracted services, access to dataor equitable geographic coverage, for example.” You need open data to make sure this relationship is working, and equitable service for everyone in your area because, well, that’s your job.You have a lot of power, so trade on what you’vegot.
Big buses and long trains are great, and they’ve still got it going on. But it might be that a smaller vehicle, or one that serves on demand, is a better fit for afternoons and late nights, when there are fewer commuters. Maybe what works for your transit agency isn’t a great fit for big city down the road. There are many models, and room to try them all.
Just remember to set boundaries. “If municipal governments and transit agencies are proactive about settings the terms of these relationships,” saysZak Accuardi, a TransitCenter program analyst,“they can put the protections in place that can avoid pitfalls”—like tussles with your friends the unions, or putting people in cars with unsafe drivers.Stay true to you.
You got this, MTA. Be brave.