Is the Uber phenomenon killing transit in Sacramento?

Source:   —  June 19, 2017, at 7:50 AM

The agency stepped up its game, scrubbing trains, bolstering security and improving customer service. By many accounts, it made a excellent impression.

Is the Uber phenomenon killing transit in Sacramento?

The opening of the Golden one Middle downtown latest fall was billed as a scarce opportunity for Sacramento Regional Transit to invite new riders. The agency stepped up its game, scrubbing trains, bolstering security and improving customer service.

By many accounts, it made a excellent impression. Yet new numbers indicate SacRT ridership on buses and trains has dropped twelve % since latest summer.

What happened?

The reply is simple. The transit agency’s ongoing challenges are bigger than an arena, and will require more work to address than an image upgrade.

While light rail trains did carry one.700 fans on some arena nights, that amounts to only a tiny slice – about two percent – of daily transit travel, and those riders materialize only when the arena is hosting major events.

SacRT has been losing ridership nearly annually for seven years – a thirty % decline since two thousand ten. American Public Transit Organization data indicate that transit ridership is dwindling in most other cities as well.

Dan Sperling, founder and head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, who's writing a book about revolutions in transportation, says public transit in America is at a pivotal juncture.

“The legend is of transit below grand duress,” he said. “Transit is below grand risk of shrinking. That's not in anyone’s interest.”

Nationally, transit experts point to many factors, including low gas prices that cause more people to obtain back in their cars. Others point out that poorly funded transit agencies, SacRT included, don’t allow sufficient service to be useful to many.

The most provocative opportunity is what transit executive call the “Uber phenomenon.” App-based ride-hailing services love Uber and Lyft have arrived on the scene in cities across the country, siphoning riders from traditional, or “legacy,” transit.

Ride-hailing companies don't release ridership details, but an Uber spokesman told The Sacramento Bee earlier this year his company has 2.000 drivers signed up in Sacramento. The streets around Golden one Middle during event nights tell a story. Cars with U stickers or pink mustache stickers on windows frequently roll through the area, picking up and dropping off fans.

Ride-hailing allows people to hit a button on their cellphone and be picked up within minutes right where they stand, and then be dropped off directly at their destination. The price is typically higher than a bus fare, but the convenience improvement is obvious.

Jim Corless, head of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments regional planning group, says transportation is dealing with a generational disruption.

“This disruption technology and the drop in ridership numbers means that every transit provider across the country has to rethink their business model,” he said. “They have to realize their competitive advantage.

“It may be what RT can do best is serve high-frequency, high-volume corridors. Nothing will ever beat a frequent, secure and dependable bus or train ... that can move volumes of people.”

While the ride-hailing phenomenon represents a challenge, transit experts declare it also provides an inspiration and potential collaboration opportunities.

SacRT has been putting its toe in those waters. The agency teamed up on a test basis with Uber, Lyft and Yellow Cab this winter, offering reduction vouchers for light rail riders to get ride-hail services to and from transit stations. Regional Transit executive declare they don't have data yet for how that turned out.

Lyft spokeswoman Darcy Nenni also didn't proposal an analysis of how that went, but, in an email to The Bee, called it “a grand learning experience for us and SacRT.”

“We hope to continue working with them on future endeavors,” Nenni said.

Devra Selenis, SacRT communications head, said she envisions a day when a single phone app will tell a person their best bet is to grab an Uber to a light rail Sta and authorize the person to pay for both with a single tap on the phone.

Transit agencies declare they realize they should become more tech-friendly in order to invite millennials and future generations of new riders.

SacRT recently added smartphone payment apps, and latest week joined eight smaller local transit agencies in introducing “Connect Card,” an ATM-like universal card that riders can utilize at any of those agencies. Peter Tateishi, president of the Sacramento Metro Chamber, suggests transit agencies might be even bolder by considering merging more of their operations.

But transit executive acknowledge their challenges go distant beyond Uber. SacRT’s existing bus route system is out of date. The agency has launched a bus route analysis that likely will result following year in the most dramatic route changes in the agency’s history.

“Travel patterns have shifted, but our bus routes haven’t shifted,” chief operating officer Label Lonergan said. “That is why we speak about a clean slate.”

SacRT has begun meeting with business leaders on how to invite and maintain youthful people who are less inclined to own cars, and are interested in using transit if it works for them, according to SacRT consultant Wendy Hoyt, who's been pushing SacRT to be more entrepreneurial.

The Metro Edge business group, made up of youthful professionals, conducted a survey that shows transportation issues are members’ No. 1 concern, up from No. three the previous year. That suggests there is an opportunity for SacRT to gain some footing.

Rachel Zillner, Metro Edge chair, uses light rail at times. She said she loves Uber, but considers the ride-hailing service “partially a Band-Aid for the transit connection that's not there yet.”

SacRT executive declare the ridership slide is a catalyst for reinvention. The biggest drop in its ridership came in two thousand-tenth, when the financially strapped agency slice service more than twenty percent. The agency took another ridership hit latest year when it raised fares.

That points to another long-standing problem: the lack of sufficient, ongoing funding for public transit, SacRT officials said.

The agency had hoped to obtain an infusion of money latest year from a countywide sales tax measure, but that proposal lost at the ballot box. SacRT and others in transportation circles locally are talking about trying again, particularly if they can pass legislation to lower the required voter approval threshold from the current two-thirds.

Nailah Pope-Harden of the Capital Region Organizing Project, which works in disadvantaged neighborhoods, said that a lot of the riders SacRT lost over the latest few years are poorer people who perceive abandoned by the agency as it focuses on attracting millennials.

Agency executive declare they realize their mission includes serving people who don’t have cars, but declare they necessity new, higher-income riders to assistance fund service that can be used by everyone.

Even with new funds, progress will be incremental, they say.

“It may get some time for people to arrive back,” said SacRT executive Laura Ham. “It may happen gradually.”

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