3 Tips for a Hot, Sexy, Long-Lasting Relationship with a Private Mobility Company
Dear Transit Tammy,
There’s this guy. Let’s call him Smyft. He says he wants to be with me, which: Yay! I’ve been the cat lady of public transit services for as long as I can remember. OK, I’m a little run down. My infrastructure is old, and I can be bit flaky, not showing up as frequently as I’ve promised. And then here comes this amazing guy …
Smyft has promised me a lot. He says he’ll help fill my gaps in service. I’m a small transit agency, and I don’t have the wherewithal to get moving at night. Smyft does! He’ll provide the labor. He’ll provide the vehicles. For a price, everyone in my city can have fast, reliable transit service, even people who don’t own a car.
But Tammy, I’ve heard the horror stories. Private mobility guys like Smyft, his brother, SUber, and his cousin, SCar2Go, promise a lot, but they’re not always into sharing—like, data sharing. My job is to help everyone get around, but his is to make money. Tammy, how do I make sure I’m not being used?
– (Nervously) Moving Toward Ardor
Worry not. You’re not the only (aging, struggling) lady with several sexy new options. It’s scary, but transit agencies across the country are taking the leap. In March, par exemple, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority in Florida started covering half the cost of a local Uber—er, SUber—ride, up to $3 per trip. Not too expensive, right? Even little agency like you could handle that kind of low-stakes partnership.
But you don’t want to get your heart broken. You’re right to be nervous, because companies like Smyft can be after the affluent consumers who can afford smartphones and a travel splurge. And they can get competitive, too. Some research shows that people sometimes choose between transit and rideshare—and transit loses.
But the costs of waiting this one out are big. Just today, in fact, the public transit research and advocacy group TransitCenter released a report for girls (and guys) in exactly your situation. Its main message: Suitors like Smyft may be almost too hot to believe, but they can be great potential partners, ready for real commitment.
So here’s a very quick guide to making sure you, sweet MTA, don’t get hurt.
When you’re approached—or approaching!—a ride-share, ride-hail, or bikeshare company, think of it as a big opportunity. Let’s face it, MTA. Sometimes you’re a stick in the mud. It takes a long time to set up your contracts, and you’re bound by regulations that might not make sense anymore. “We can’t maintain this type of process in our procurement and stay nimble,” says Lisa Walton, CTO at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Think of Smyft’s overtures as an excuse to look at your internal rules and decide if they’re meant for this century.
2. Fight for Your Needs
Stick up for yourself, lady! Lean in! You might have a different priorities than your new beau. He’s interested in proprietary secrets; you need to know how many people are traveling downtown, and when. He’s into idling in your bike lanes and taking up all your parking spots; you have other friends who need a bit of parking time, too. Luckily, you have some leverage. The TransitCenter report puts it this way: “Who run the world/ Girls.”
Wait, no—sorry. Actually what it said is, “The public sector controls valuable assets, like parking spaces and street right-of-way, that can be used to negotiate for contracted services, access to data or equitable geographic coverage, for example.” You need open data to make sure this relationship is working, and equitable service for everyone in your area because, well, that’s your job. You have a lot of power, so trade on what you’ve got.
3. Experiment a Little
Big buses and long trains are great, and they’ve still got it going on. But it might be that a smaller vehicle, or one that serves on demand, is a better fit for afternoons and late nights, when there are fewer commuters. Maybe what works for your transit agency isn’t a great fit for big city down the road. There are many models, and room to try them all.
Just remember to set boundaries. “If municipal governments and transit agencies are proactive about settings the terms of these relationships,” says Zak Accuardi, a TransitCenter program analyst, “they can put the protections in place that can avoid pitfalls”—like tussles with your friends the unions, or putting people in cars with unsafe drivers. Stay true to you.
You got this, MTA. Be brave.