Next stop for ETS could be partnership with ride-hailing companies like Uber

A new transit strategy suggests Edmonton consider partnering with private transportation companies to fill service gaps in areas with low ridership and low service.

'It's an existential threat to public transit as a concept,' says critic of city strategy

A sweeping new transit strategy report will be discussed at City Hall on July 5. (CBC)

It's 6 p.m. You've finished work, you're starving for dinner, it was standing-room only on the bus ride home — and now you've got a 20-minute walk to your house.

Are those 20 minutes too much? Would they dissuade you from taking the bus? What if a cab whisked you home from that stop, as an "add-on" to the regular transit system that almost got you home?

That idea has been adopted in a handful of American municipalities, and is being contemplated by Edmonton in an ambitious transit plan that goes to city hall on Wednesday.

It proposes that the city look into partnerships with vehicle-for-hire companies to get transit-takers that "last mile" home, or farther, if needed.

"This is an important piece for us in keeping up with trends in technology and trends in the transportation industry," said Sarah Feldman, general supervisor of city-wide strategy.

"We see other cities in Canada investigating these ideas. And to be a modern municipality, we have to keep up with these trends and have our eyes open to them."
The transit plan calls for better integration between bus routes and LRT stations. (CBC)

Feldman led the group that worked for two years on a sweeping new transit strategy that will be presented to the urban planning committee.

The strategy suggests everything from more frequent buses on major corridors, to better walking paths and improved bus shelters, to more direct service to major destinations in suburban areas.

It also highlights the need for tradeoffs, especially on low-ridership routes in the outer areas of the city. That's where riders might get limited service or have to walk farther to get a bus.

One tradeoff would be better, faster, more reliable buses when those riders hit a major thoroughfare.

And to help make up for that tradeoff, the report suggests "exploring options with private sector transportation services to provide new mobility choices in areas with low demand."

Blending private and public

Edmonton is not the first Canadian municipality to consider partnering with vehicle-for-hire companies to supplement a traditional public transit system. In Innisfil, Ont., the entire transit strategy is powered by Uber.

The sprawling town of 37,000 people located about an hour north of Toronto has never had a public transit system. The town did a feasibility study that found it would have cost $600,000 to start up a single route through town.

"It would just be a big expense and not the entire population would be able to access that service," said Paul Pentikainen, the senior policy planner in Innisfil.

Innisfail decided to try a pilot partnership with Uber at a cost of $100,000. Passengers pay a "standard fare" to get to several fixed locations in town, while the town covers the difference in the total cost of the ride.

The town provides a five-dollar subsidy for rides to other locations.

It would just be a big expense and not the entire population would be able to access that service- Paul Pentikainen, Innsifil policy planner

The program started in May and is so far on budget.

Pentikainen argues that data collected from Uber rides will give the town a better idea of ridership patterns and what services might best benefit residents in the future.

But he's not promising the start of a full public transportation model in Innisfil.

"A lot of people are looking at the potential to look at transit in a different way, and to think of different ways there might be to not just overthrow the existing bus networks ... but how do we look at alternative ways to add to the efficiency of existing system?"

'Slippery slope'

The idea of integrating "shared mobility" services, such as Uber or other specialized transportation companies, into the public transit system raises red flags for many.

Unions are concerned the strategy could cost jobs for bus drivers. Others argue such arrangements will be used to justify poor public transit services — which will decrease ridership even more, and serve as justification to slash routes further.

"I can see no good reason for us to be giving public taxpayer dollars to do the same services that public transit used to do," said Duncan Kinney, executive director of Progress Alberta, a progressive advocacy group based in Edmonton. 
Duncan Kinney, the executive director of Progress Alberta, says allowing private companies to partner with public transit is a "slippery slope." (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

"This is a slippery slope where if these types of arrangements become popular, it's an existential threat to public transit as a concept. If it's cheaper and easier to give money to Uber to do public transit, why even have buses in the first place?"

While the city hasn't specifically pointed to Uber as a possible partner, Kinney notes it is by the most visible company that has the most experience with these arrangements.

He objects to the unstable salaries for drivers and the company's corporate culture, which included aggressive tactics in cities that opposed the service and claims of sexual harassment in its offices, that preceded the recent resignation of the CEO.

Kinney points out that there alternatives for low ridership routes. In St. Albert, there's a dial-a-bus service where riders can call for a bus during off-peak, evening hours. The bus follows a fixed route and runs about every 45 minutes if there's demand. 

Kevin Bamber, director of transit in St. Albert, said dial-a-bus allows the city to provide service even during off-peak hours, without the cost of a full bus route.

In the same way, even ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber promote ride-sharing with other passengers in order to lower fares and keep cars moving.

Kinney says ridership problems will ultimately be solved with better service.

"How do you get more people onto a bus? It's not by cutting their service. You have to provide better service. You have to make it easier and better for you to get on public transit than it is for you to get into a car and drive around."