In 'fighting' Uber, we just screwed transit users / by Tim Querengesser

A fun way to confound people in Edmonton is to ask where the closest LRT station is and how you might get to it. I tried this recently at a building in the Coronet Industrial park in south Edmonton, which I had arrived at by taxi, since I was in a rush and traveling to this place quickly by bus, LRT or my bicycle was not possible from where I live in Cloverdale. After my interview there, I wanted to get home using Edmonton Transit in order to not spend another $18 on a taxi. So I asked a ridiculous question.

“Where’s the closest LRT station from here?”

The communications person I had been dealing with gave me a long, are-you-kidding-me stare, as if we were on an island in the ocean and I was asking how I could walk to another country.

“It’s Southgate,” she said. “It will take you at least 30 minutes to walk there.”

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt   

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt


She made no mention of a connecting bus route, since—let’s be honest—readily-available buses taking you where you need to go in Edmonton are most often unicorns that you can only fantasize about riding. So I walked. In the rain.

The problem I faced that day is the same each person using Edmonton Transit faces, and the same one we just made harder to solve in our 'fight' against Uber. It is called the first-mile problem.

Recently, Edmonton planners started researching a revised transit strategy to get more of us on buses and trains, which as one of Canada’s most car-dependent cities, we desperately need. The planners' biggest challenge, like all transit operators, is minimizing the barrier between you and a bus or between the bus and your destination. People have forever solved these gaps with a mixture of swear words, walking, biking and money paid to private mobility companies.

Planners were finally recognizing those realities and had proposed better integrating some of these companies into a cohesive service, in order to get more of us out of car dependence and into an LRT. This very tactic is revolutionizing transit in parts of Europe.

But because Uber is one private mobility company with a hideous track record, all hopes for looking into the idea were charged with emotion. On July 11, city council voted to strike “Partnerships with the vehicle for hire and car-sharing industries” from a bullet-point list of directions it gave to its administration on what it is and is not allowed to research as part of our transit strategy.

The council vote was odd, with car-happy suburban councillors siding with supposedly transit-protecting hard lefties to win it. It was also wrong on many fronts, ignored Edmonton's history of partnerships on mobility and how people use mobility in Edmonton. If left as is, the main group that will suffer is riders.

Like most without a car, I most often solve gaps in transit by walking and biking, and occasionally with taxis or car shares. This is common. A similarly car-free friend described her approach: “As a lifelong and daily transit rider, I default to private companies when public transit fails to meet my needs — which is fairly often, and I live quite central and not out in the burbs,” she writes.

Another female friend has a similar experience. “I live far south and I use Uber and LRT together religiously. You have to because the city doesn't allow me to take a bike on the train during peak hours and after 5:30 my buses don't run anymore,” she writes.

But while this is the norm, we have removed the ability to research how to make it all work better for transit users.

Uber might be a great bogeyman but it does not represent all private mobility companies. In fact, those have partnered with Edmonton many times, with great results. Take Edmonton’s experience with Disabled Adult Transit Service, or DATS. In 1975, a single private contractor ran the service as a pilot project through a partnership with the city. In that first year, the contractor provided an incredible 36,000 trips for Edmonton residents with mobility challenges who would have otherwise been forced to either take a taxi or not go somewhere. Eventually DATS and its employees just became another city department. But it all started with the city accepting a mobility partnership with a private operator.

It's these sort of stories that are swaying many to back down from binary positions on private versus public services and instead see the potential win for actual riders in combining the two. Take TransitCenter, a New York City-based foundation of planners, agency heads and politicians aimed at building urban mobility. Their thoughts on private mobility teaming with public transit? “Emerging mobility services allow for greater transportation efficiency by creating opportunities for more flexible planning by public agencies. If agencies can reduce the cost of providing equivalent or better service in inefficient transit markets, they can reallocate savings to improve service elsewhere.”

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt

This is, in a nutshell, precisely what Edmonton planners wanted to investigate. After being told by survey respondents that many want a transit service that is far more frequent, they realized to provide it with their fixed resources that underperforming routes at the periphery of the city needed to be cut. And that was or is potentially going to screw a lot of people

So how to bridge the gap between huge, car-dependent suburban neighbourhoods and transit nodes, such as Southgate LRT? Rather than force people to take a taxi to the transit hub (or, as most in Edmonton do, just buy another car), Edmonton was hoping to investigate better integrating private mobility options into the overall mobility solution it offers. Or in plainer language, to solve everyone’s first- and last-mile problems, and let someone in the burbs call a taxi to get them to a transit line but not have to pay ridiculous fees.

Over in Finland and Germany, this is nudging closer to the standard approach. The idea there is called Mobility as a Service, or MaaS, and the concept is that a consumer can pay one monthly fare to access to all manner of mobility options. Imagine: You wake, grab a ride-share to your nearest LRT station, take that to your nearest downtown stop and then ride a bike-share to your office. All using one app, with one monthly price.

At the centre is the public transit system, while at the periphery are private mobility options acting like feeders to this broader system. Making it all work together seamlessly is just an acknowledgment of reality. Oh, and some good old fashioned disruptive thinking to shake up often sleepy transit agencies. (In Edmonton, we still do not have a Smart Card program, let alone deep innovation, for context).

Where this all gets hard is Uber, which for good reason has become an epithet. Edmonton spends $220-million each year on transit, making it the most expensive line item on each year's budget. About one-third of all Edmonton staff are employed in transportation services, with a large number of those working in the Edmonton Transit Service. And this is the main point that seems to be where many look at Uber and get very emotional.

In the days before the July 11 vote, an international web-campaign group called SumofUs teamed with local organization Progress Alberta to offer people a petition to sign, though its connection to the actual motion was, let's say, highly removed. The petition inaccurately described Edmonton as “Ground Zero” in Uber’s campaign to privatize public transit in North America — even though, as I have noted, the motion to consider private mobility providers came from Edmonton administrators, not Uber.

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt

Flickr/Kurt Bauschardt

Indeed, the motion council voted down was simply to study how or if private mobility companies, from Uber to dozens of others, including Edmonton's own Pogo and TappCar (which has a unionized workforce), as well as a Canadian startup bridging the Kitchener-to-Toronto transit gap, called RideCo, might be added as potential partners to increase transit ridership. The SumofUs petition’s wording, however, implied something very different was happening. And apparently 12,000 people signed the petition.

After Tuesday’s vote, which strikes even the possibility of studying how companies like RideCo might offer Edmonton Transit first-mile solutions, Progress Alberta’s Duncan Kinney said, in a SumofUs release: “This is a big victory for Edmonton and a big victory for public transit. We’ll have to keep our guards up, because Uber will likely try this in other cities, but the decision made in Edmonton today is a great first step.”

Again, Uber did not try anything here. At all. I contacted Kinney, who I know personally, but he declined to comment.

Still, despite the potentially misleading statements, let’s address the main fear informing them—that Edmonton will slowly privatize public transit over to Uber, who will then be able to charge passengers whatever they like. That is a dark possibility we should not ignore.

But according to TransitCenter, it just is not possible. TransitCenter claims Uber tends to peak at about six riders an hour, while transit exceeds that, even with so-called “empty buses,” and it does so using more than 70 per cent less space in the city than Uber cars. City streets just are not big enough for Uber to take over transit.

TransitCenter also claims Uber ridership tends to peak at night, when transit services are scaled back. What this suggests is the two are complementary services and people use both. And that's exactly what we found at the beginning of this article.

Like an airline, the $220-million cost Edmonton Transit creates (comparatively, we spend about $192-million on operating our road network) stays largely the same whether zero people take the trains or buses, or if they are always full. Which means Edmonton’s main objective should be to convince as many people as they can to get on the damn bus. Which means solving their first- and last-mile problems. Which should mean looking at all the best options out there.

Transportation is the most subsidized space governments exist in. Roads are in many ways publicly subsidized tools that allow private mobility. Or in other ways of looking at things, public dollars enable private companies—car and oil companies in this case—to sell us private mobility solutions. The two are—perhaps you're getting my theme here—complementary.

My friend summed up my thoughts well. “I totally agree that the optics of having even a little public tax money going to private companies seems unacceptable, but the reality is that so many transit users are already spending tons of their own money on these private companies to compensate for gaps in public transit,” she wrote. “And it really sucks that Uber is the poster child and seemingly the only other option, because they are not.”

If you were to consult the history on DATS, or look into RideCo, or chat with the good people at Pogo and TappCar, you would know she is right.  

Coun. Andrew Knack agrees. "While I absolutely have concerns with the management of one particular ride-sharing company, I believe examining all different solutions is worthwhile," he wrote, in a blog.

The transit strategy report is not due back to council until April 2018, meaning it will be the next council that examines it. Knack and many others are hoping to push adding the examination of private partnerships back onto the table.