Uber wants to take over public transit, one small town at a time
My first morning in Altamonte Springs, Florida, I was faced with a dilemma: how to travel the two miles from my hotel to city hall without a car. Walking would take nearly an hour in the sweltering June heat. Taking a bus would entail waiting up to a half hour at a stop with little shelter from the forecasted thunderstorms, followed by a looping detour to the local mall. The trip could potentially take longer than walking.
I was on my way to meet Frank Martz, Altamonte’s city manager. For nearly two decades, Martz had fought to overhaul Altamonte’s transit system with a fleet of demand-responsive public busses. He called the plan FlexBus, and it would use custom-designed software to optimize routes for vehicles that riders would order from kiosks or even desktop computers. Martz saw FlexBus as the key to transforming Altamonte, a loose agglomeration of palm tree-lined strip malls and culs-de-sac a few miles north of Orlando, into a thriving and walkable destination.
Despite Martz’s persistent lobbying, bureaucratic delays and disagreements with the regional transit authority stalled the project for years, Martz says. Finally last October, the Federal Transit Administration withdrew millions in vital funding. FlexBus was dead.
But the transit landscape had changed since Martz began his quest. In the years before FlexBus was founded, some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent companies had begun offering on-demand transportation reminiscent of Martz’s vision. So just weeks after burying FlexBus, Martz called Uber. His inquiry was blunt: did the company want to make Altamonte the world’s first public transportation system based on ride-share technology?
Martz’s proposal would make the suburb of Altamonte an unlikely test bed for one future of public transit. It would also raise questions about whether such a future can serve everyone equally, and force Martz to navigate between the transparency of public office and the demands of a multibillion dollar company with a penchant for secrecy.
By the time Martz called Uber, less radical versions of his proposal had begun proliferating across the county. As Bloomberg noted last month, both Uber and Lyft have been striking agreements with transit agencies, mostly for so-called "first-last mile" programs — meant to shuttle commuters to bus or train stations. Since last year, Uber has scored public transit agreements with San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, among other cities. Uber and Lyft have also been edging into niche public transportation services, like transit for disabled people or low-income residents who need rides to work or the grocery store. Last month officials in Washington, DC proposed having Uber respond to some 911 calls for ambulances.
Even Google’s Alphabet, through its Sidewalk Labs program, has joined the transit bonanza. The company recently offered to overhaul transit in Columbus, Ohio with a system that sets parking prices based on demand and funnels low-income commuters into subsidized ride-share vehicles.
These companies are arriving at an opportune time for cities, many of which are struggling just to fund existing transit service, much less expand it to meet the needs of growing numbers of urban commuters. Both Uber and Lyft tell The Verge that the past year has seen a surge in public officials interested in giving the companies taxpayer dollars for public transit contracts. For the companies, it’s an appealing new way to establish themselves as vital infrastructure, especially in low-density communities like Altamonte where running traditional mass transit can be expensive. Given the pace at which these partnerships are coming together, it’s possible to imagine ride-hail companies taking on the role of all-encompassing, smartphone-driven public transit providers, one town at a time.
But for some transit advocates, the embrace of Uber and its competitors risks undermining civic ideals of accessibility and transparency. In Altamonte, there are already signs that these concerns could be warranted. The pilot program is unusable for people without a smartphone or credit card, and the company attempted to have the city sign an unusually far-reaching nondisclosure agreement.
Ultimately, critics worry that if these programs succeed, they could pluck the affluent commuters who wield real political influence off trains and busses, leading to a crisis of declining ridership and decreasing clout for traditional public transportation....MORE
Uber has so far been pitching itself as a supplement to existing transit programs rather than a replacement. But in June of last year, for the company’s five-year anniversary, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick envisioned a future where increasing efficiency would make Uber cost-competitive not just with owning a car, but with traditional mass transit. When drivers drop off a customer only to pick up another, chained together in a "perpetual trip," Kalanick said, "not only is it much less expensive than taking a cab or owning a car, it has the potential to be as affordable as taking a subway, or a bus, or other means of transportation. And that’s what we believe is the real game-changer. Those are the things we’ll be working on in years to come."
With the help of public subsidies, that future is coming fast. The speed with which Uber has entered the public transit sector has stunned industry activists. "It’s happening very quickly," says Lawrence Hanley, the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. "It’s like a tsunami."
I didn’t have an hour to spare getting across town to meet Martz, so government Uber was the obvious choice. Opening the app, I noticed a new option had appeared next to UberX: an "Altamonte" car. Upon being scooped up by an off-duty drug counselor in a sleek Chrysler, it became clear that the app had so seamlessly incorporated the municipal transit program as to, aside from the car name, wholly hide its civic underpinning. It was Uber as usual in every way, but cheaper. Indeed, most of the Uber drivers who shuttled me around town that week told me they had no idea their rides were being subsidized by the government.
It wasn’t until I arrived at city hall that I fully understood the aggressively suburban layout of Altamonte. I had imagined Martz’s office as being inside a stately administrative building somewhere central, but though it’s technically a municipality, Altamonte has nothing resembling a center. Its low-slung city hall sits anonymously amid a cluster of one-story gray-brick buildings off the six-lane State Road 436, largely hidden by the Altamonte Executive Center strip mall.
Martz led me into his conference room and took a seat in front of a floor-to-ceiling city map, which, because of Altamonte’s curlicue suburban street scheme, could double as patterned wallpaper. He wasted little time in noting, with a prideful note of irony, that the building that once housed the regional commuter rail headquarters was where he had conceived the first fully smartphone-driven public transit network.
A former minor league baseball player, Martz has a sturdy frame and speaks with prim efficiency, but he slips into exuberance when discussing his long-delayed success in bringing demand-responsive public transit to Altamonte.
"We recognized this much earlier than most, that the issue of transit usage was not about infrastructure," Martz said. "It’s about convenience and control."
When Martz dialed Uber in November, the company jumped at his inquiry. Within two weeks of the call, an Uber manager flew from Washington, DC to Orlando to meet with him, he says. After two months of discussions, Uber sent Martz a chart laying out the possible future of their partnership. At a subsidy rate of 25 percent — and assuming the ridership would grow annually by 100 percent — Uber would receive roughly a million dollars per year from the city. A potential indication of Uber’s aspirations, the chart also included a scenario in which Altamonte would pay Uber a full 100 percent subsidy, putting the town on the hook for up to nearly $7 million in ride-share funding over a two-year span.
(Uber also sent Martz a document instructing that its logo "should be treated with respect" and laying out in anxious detail what that entails. In promoting the program, Martz was forbidden from placing the Uber logo "anywhere that could degrade our brand," including on doormats or anywhere else where it could be trodden on; on things like napkins or paper plates that would be quickly thrown away; on dartboards or urinals; on food, which, the document explains, will be sliced, broken, eaten, and is associated with the feces it will later become; or on underwear, condoms, "or anything else that would link Uber and sexual situations.")