Ride Hailing: Local Transit Killer, Regional Transit Hero?

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After years of taking the stance that it “plays nice” with public transit, Uber finally admitted that it’s in direct competition with local buses and trains. This comes as no surprise to an urbanist world that directly correlates the dramatic rise in ride hailing trips with the downturn in public transit use in major U.S. metros. The general consensus is simple… people will pay a lot of money to turn their hour long bus ride into a 15 minute “private” car ride. And as someone who has driven for Uber, I can anecdotally agree.

But while ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft may be a dagger in heart of local public transit networks, it is a potential game changer for regional and inter-city connectors like Amtrak and Greyhound. And yes, the airlines, but let’s stick with the underdogs for now.

In my home state of New York, Amtrak and Greyhound service is actually quite practical, aside from the delays. If I want to travel from my home city of Rochester to the State Capital of Albany, I can white-knuckle the New York State Thruway for several hours, or I can take Amtrak, which is a little bit slower but far more comfortable. I can get work done on the way, or just lay back and take a nap. Amtrak is known for its comfortable seating with plenty of legroom, so the choice for me is simple… choose the mode of transit that allows me to be comfortable and productive.

And then there’s Greyhound, which doesn’t have the comforts of Amtrak, but does have a more consistent on-time performance. And in my state, Greyhound ties together many cities that are not served by the passenger rail giant.

For decades, the problem with casual or business travel on both of these transit modes was simple… you had to have someone to pick you up when you arrived at the station. In a car oriented world, you needed someone on the other end of your travels to take you that final 5-10 miles to your final destination. Today, it’s a no brainer… just take Uber or Lyft.

In August of this year, I will introduce a great friend to the wonders of one of my favorite small cities in our state, Utica, New York. We will take the train from Rochester to Utica, and spend the day popping around one of the most resurgent little downtowns in our state! Years ago, we would have been limited to expensive and unreliable taxi service while in Utica, but today, we will hop off the train and be able to access some of the city’s more remote destinations like The Utica Zoo quickly and easily with Uber and Lyft. This is the perfect example of how app-based ride hailing can make regional urban transportation a much more practical option, even on a whim. Less planning, more spontaneous enjoyment.

While ride hailing may be to blame in the downturn of local transit ridership, it may be a saving grace for inter-city/regional transportation options like Amtrak and Greyhound. These two transportation dark horses may be powerful beneficiaries from the advent of ride hailing, and the at least in Amtrak’s case, ridership numbers are starting to show an uptick.

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