This week we might begin to see whether Uber can help smash public transportation’s “first mile, last mile” barrier.
Yes: Uber, the new-fangled nemesis of old-fashioned taxis everywhere. Uber, so cheap and ubiquitous that it has begun luring riders off Charlotte’s trains and buses.
Why didn’t each of us relax on the bus to work this morning, reading books and digging WiFi? One answer is that most of us live too far away (hi, Cary!) from the nearest stop. First mile.
And maybe the office is a long hike (yo, Research Triangle Park!) from the last stop, too. Last mile.
So we drove the car instead.
Here’s a new option with the potential to overcome this considerable obstacle: Use one smartphone app to plot the best bus route – and, if it helps, book an Uber driver to cover that “first mile” to the bus stop or the “last mile” to the destination, or both. All with the proverbial one click.
Uber has made modest moves to acknowledge public transit options in other parts of the country. But the San Francisco-based company is going farther with GoTriangle.
It all comes together in the Rider app distributed by Durham-based TransLoc, which shows commuters where their bus is and how soon it will arrive.
“Our mission is to make transit so great that it becomes everybody’s first choice for transportation,” Doug Kaufman, the TransLoc CEO, said in an interview. “This Uber partnership is a way to make transit more viable, by making it easier to get people to the bus stop.”
GoTriangle, better known as Triangle Transit, is the three-county bus agency that hauls students and commuters from one town to another. TransLoc’s Rider app tracks buses for GoTriangle and 140 transit agencies across the country. Rider will be Uber-enhanced for transit users in Memphis, Tenn., starting March 22 – and for GoTriangle riders starting Thursday.
GoTriangle, Uber and TransLoc will roll out the new app in an event scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at Durham Station, the downtown bus hub. Wool E. Bull and Mayor Bill Bell will be there.
“It will give you the full itinerary from beginning to end,” Kaufman said. “Let’s say the best option for you includes an Uber on the first mile and again on the last mile. It will actually give you the ability to hail an Uber for the last mile – so it’s there when your bus pulls up, and it’s ready to take you to your destination.”
In Florida, a Tampa Bay-area bus agency has struck a different deal with Uber and a local taxi service. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority subsidizes the cost of that first-mile drive to the bus stop. Pinellas officials think this will reduce pressures to expand their bus network into more neighborhoods.
Uber says it welcomes the chance to work with TransLoc and GoTriangle.
“As a company devoted to innovation, Uber believes that integrating with TransLoc is a positive step towards providing safe and reliable rides for all at the touch of a button,” Raj Naik, Uber’s general manager for North Carolina, said by email.
It’s not clear whether the local agencies in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill are ready to embrace the competition. Charlotte’s bus and rider counts fell by about 10 percent in the past year, and transit officials say they lost some of those customers to Lyft and Uber.
“This is a challenge for the transit industry,” John Lewis, CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, told the Charlotte City Council last week. “The shared ride community is having an impact on transit.”
GoTriangle’s intercity buses haven’t felt serious price competition from Uber so far.
“Since a lot of our trips are very long, being a regional transit authority, you will still see riders getting their last link through Uber as opposed to using Uber for the entire trip,” GoTriangle spokeswoman Natalie Murdock said. “We jumped at this opportunity for a partnership with Uber.”
A clunky test drive
TransLoc’s Uberized Rider app is in beta. It allows the option to combine Uber trips only with GoTriangle rides.
And for now, local bus services in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill are off limits. Diplomatically, the app declines to offer Uber trips that would compete directly with GoRaleigh, GoDurham or Chapel Hill Transit options.
So it took Alex Gibson, a TransLoc product manager, a few tries Monday afternoon to come up with a hypothetical trip that demonstrated the appeal of an Uber alternative.
There are three options for making a trip from TransLoc’s office near Research Triangle Park to a residential neighborhood off Morrisville Carpenter Road.
The first option starts with a quarter-mile walk to GoTriangle’s regional transit center, then the 311 bus to Cary. Exit at a stop on N.C. 55 and catch an Uber car for the final mile to the destination. Travel time: 23 minutes. Cost: $2.25 for the bus plus $6 for Uber.
If you walk that last mile instead, it takes 38 minutes and you save save the $6 Uber fee.
Or skip the bus and take an Uber car for the entire trip: 22 minutes for $18.