Are Rideshare Companies to Blame for DC Metro’s Decline in Ridership

(Brandon Bhangoo) #1

Rideshare services were designed to run side-by-side mass transit options such as buses and trains. However, in the case of the of D.C Metro mass transit system, they appear to be running ahead of the pact causing ridership numbers to take an extreme dip.

The latest statistics show rail ridership down to 615,000 average weekday trips. This is 135,000 fewer than 2009 peaks. When it comes to the bus, ridership is down 8 percent year-over-year.

In the Washington area, Uber reports 1.9 million active riders being served by 42,000 drivers. Lyft did not share specific numbers but they said that they have also seen great growth. They stated that rides have tripled from 2015 to 2016 and in the early month of this year they capitalized on Uber's negative publicity.

Via, a rideshare company based in New York also entered the D.C market in 2016 and they reported, via a spokesperson, that they have grown by a factor of seven in 2017.

In response, Metro has hired the consulting firm VHB to create an analysis on ridership numbers that includes the impact of ride-sharing companies. Their hope is that this helps them to understand where their riders have gone and how to bring them back on board.

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said the consulting firm was brought on board to "build a platform to create a forecasting and modeling tool that will help Metro find ways to stabilize its ridership and grow its numbers."

The report from the consulting firm VHB is due next summer.

D.C is not the only state that is struggling with this challenge. It's a common issue being faced by large cities. Chicago is a prime example.

Chicago's administration under Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) has cited a $40 million drain from the city and other local government coffers from the loss of riders to rideshare companies. They submitted a budget requesting among other things, a 15-cent fee hike on rideshare trips. This increase was to go towards supporting the modernization efforts of Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). A move they hope would encourage riders back to CTA.

Mayoral spokesman Adam Collins said that the fee increase was negotiated with the ride-share industry. This amount was approved.

D.C officials, however, are unlikely to follow in Chicago's footsteps.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) says Metro have only themselves to blame for the decline in ridership. In response to a reporter's question on the reduced rider numbers, Bowser had the following to say.

"There are a lot of things that are cutting into Metro ridership. I would put first among them the year-long SafeTrack [maintenance] program, and also the cutting back of hours at Metro. So I wouldn't start with Uber, I would start with Metro itself."

SafeTrack is a program that was introduced to perform maintenance and repair to improve the safety and reliability of the Metrorail system. It required users to find alternate transportation options while repairs were underway. The result of which was an increase in the number of new riders on the various rideshare apps who were also coincidentally being targeted during the SafeTrack program with low pricing.

Hubert Horan, a transportation and aviation consultation that, has analyzed both Uber and Metro, said the following in an email interview. "Uber fares and service levels were heavily (and unsustainably) subsidized while the cost of competing modes (including transit) was increasing, with service cutbacks and worsening reliability."

In response to Metro's challenges, Uber said they view the Metro as the backbone of the region's transportation network and never intended to be in competition with it. Only to complement it. They use a 2016 American Public Transportation Association study that concluded that rideshare customers were more likely to be frequent transit users.

Regina Clewlow, a transportation researcher disagrees with this view that Uber and other rideshare companies have taken. Her conclusions are based on a study she led for the University of California at Davis's Institute of Transportation Studies that looked at ride-hailing's impact on mass transit.

She said the following. "If they were complementary to transit, then transit should have grown really dramatically, on par with Uber and Lyft. Obviously, they haven't — they've gone in the opposite direction."

From the customers' point of view, an October study from UC Davis revealed that customers say they opt to use Uber and Lyft over mass transit due to speed. Mass transit is too slow they say.

Bruce Schaller is in agreement with the above finding. He says the reason why rideshare companies are surging ahead is simple. They have found service gaps and are filling them. Schaller is a consultant and former deputy commissioner for traffic and planning in New York. He led the "Unsustainable?" study on the growth of ride-hailing services there.

He said the following. "What Uber and [its competitors] have done is they've shone a bright light on deficiencies and other gaps in the public transportation systems in New York, D.C., Chicago. What's happened is that there's now consequences if public transit isn't up to snuff. Before, people just had to tolerate it."

Schaller says if mass transit is to compete with rideshare companies and come out ahead they will need " to improve service, expand capacity, [provide] better customer information."

Metro needs to figure out what to do to increase their rider numbers and implement it sooner rather later because of a new concept that is currently under research. Driverless cars.

Though it will be a while before they are cleared for consumers, mass transit providers must start thinking of how their arrival will impact them. Driverless cars will eliminate the need to pay drivers. Rideshare companies will undoubtedly pass on these saving to customers via reduced fares.

Schaller said, "You could have a steady flow turn into an avalanche of people switching from transit to these vehicles as they get cheaper and cheaper."

At a recent Metro board meeting, a similar sentiment was also expressed by board member David Horner. He urged the agency to be progressive in their thinking and planning.

He said, "The rise of autonomous vehicles over the next decades could be devastating unless we get our capital programming right," he said. "We can't be Sears, Roebuck in the era of Amazon."

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