Texas Agency Heads, Uber Official Discuss Expanding Definition of Transit

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

(From left) Moderator Art Guzzetti; Chris Pangilinan, Uber's public transportation head of global policy; Todd Plesko, DART vice president of service planning and scheduling; Randy Clarke, Capital Metro president and CEO; Jeffrey Arndt, CEO of VIA Metropolitan Transit; and Tom Lambert, Houston METRO president and CEO, talk about mass transit at the Texas Mobility Summit.

As Texas transit agency officials look to lure more people away from their personal vehicles and onto mass transit, they are increasingly mindful of the complementary role other modes of transportation play in the mobility landscape, panelists at the Texas Mobility Summit said Tuesday.

Leaders from the transit agencies of San Antonio, Houston, Austin, and Dallas shared ways they have attracted riders to make the switch to buses and rail at the annual conference with the goal of creating collaborative solutions for the state’s transportation challenges.

Todd Plesko, vice president of service planning and scheduling at Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), said the biggest shift in the transit industry is the expansion of what transit means; while transit has been thought of historically as buses and trains, mass transit agencies have to be more adaptable, he said.

“Our customers say, ‘We want mobility,’” Plesko said. “And I’ve been observing Lime scooters; those [riders] are taking trips that are a mile, in some cases. … We will invest in transit when it makes sense, but we may also invest in rideshare when it makes sense.”

The transit agency leaders also acknowledged non-bus or train mobility options as important parts of a transportation network, with ride-hailing companies being an obvious example of a non-traditional mode of transportation that people have embraced over the past few years.

Right now, DART is working on a partnership with Uber to bring riders to certain DART stations for discounted rates on the Uber Pool service.

“Why not benefit where we can?” Plesko asked.

Uber is both complementary to the transit landscape and competitive, said Chris Pangilinan, head of global policy for public transportation at Uber.

“On a micro-level, absolutely, people are like, ‘I can go from here to here, what do I do?'” Pangilinan said. “And [their mode of transportation] is probably not pre-determined and they’ll pull up the app … and see, ‘What will it cost me?’ There’s that tension that happens every trip.”

But Uber works as part of a larger transportation network and rarely serves as people’s sole means of transportation, Pangilinan said.

“If you put [transit and ride-hailing] together, along with the other modes that we have around us – like scooters or what have you – perhaps there’s a way to create that alternative to car ownership where you live in a city, with all these modes available to you, and you can use it all,” he said. “And in that sense, you are competing on that micro [level], but you actually are using it all together in one line.”

Though he acknowledged the service that ride-hailing companies provide, people need to consider the different frameworks that transit agencies and Uber operate in, said Randy Clarke, president and CEO of Austin’s Capital Metro transit system. CapMetro and other transit companies are simply not going to have the same kind of advantages due to Uber’s reliance on the gig economy and drivers who are not considered employees, Clarke said.

“If we’re going to talk competition, let’s make it a fair competition,” Clarke said. “I have to treat my workers like workers; they are not part of a tech company. And they are unionized and they get benefits and normal wages and all of those factors … I’m OK with always competing if the competition is actually fair.”

The fundamental building blocks of transit service – frequency, reliability, sidewalk connectivity, and safe places to wait for a bus – are still important, said VIA Metropolitan Transit President and CEO Jeff Arndt, but transit agencies need to recognize that today’s consumers are used to immediate responses.

“We have to have systems that are responsive in that type of market,” Arndt said. “[For example,] you can know when your bus is going to arrive. You can have services out there that are going to be convenient enough for you. I always compare that to two-day delivery with Amazon.

“That’s why I think technology is so important – it’s not the ends, it’s the means to getting people reliable service.”

In order to increase mass transit ridership, agencies also need to work toward making that mode of transportation pleasant enough so that it is in the rider’s self-interest to ride the bus or train rather than an act of self-sacrifice, Pangilinan said.

“We should, in our respective industries, always be focusing on customers first and making sure their pain points are relieved, that they’re having a great experience, and then the ridership will follow,” Pangilinan said.

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