This article was originally published by Sarah Wray on Cities Today, the leading news platform on urban mobility and innovation, reaching an international audience of city leaders. For the latest updates follow Cities Today on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube, or sign up for Cities Today News.

Uber’s software will power on-demand public transport services through a new deal in California with the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) and the bus agency Marin Transit.

Although Uber already displays public transport data in its app and has enabled ticket purchases in some locations, this move represents its first Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) tie-up with a public transport agency.

Shin-pei Tsay, Director of Policy, Cities and Transportation at Uber, told Cities Today: “We’re always looking for ways we can complement public transit agencies and cities through our technology. This latest example is one we’re excited about pursuing with more partners, especially those looking for ways to increase accessibility for underserved populations and those with additional needs. With the ubiquity of Uber’s app, there’s a broader opportunity to team up using our consumer experience to address challenges transit agencies will continue to grapple with moving forward.”

She said Uber is working on “a host of different solutions” for public transport agencies.

Through the new Connect2Transit program, riders will be able to book shared on-demand, accessible minibus trips with Marin Transit through Uber’s app. The service will be available in and around the Highway 101 corridor in Marin County, connecting riders to local and regional bus, rail and ferry services and expanding the existing coverage area.

Nancy Whelan, Marin Transit General Manager, called the program “a unique public-private partnership”.

“We are especially excited to expand on-demand access for older adults and those with disabilities in Marin County that need wheelchair accessible vehicles or drivers that offer additional support to riders,” she said.

The shuttle vans will be configured to accommodate two wheelchair riders and five ambulatory passengers, and four vehicles will be in operation.

Streamlining apps

Rides will cost US$4 per mile, or US$3 for those with disabilities or other mobility issues, with the fee going directly to Marin Transit. Uber will not collect a commission but will charge the authority a flat monthly subscription rate, totaling no more than US$80,000 over two years. TAM will also pay Uber on a per-ride basis up to US$70,000 per year to apply discount vouchers for Marin Transit Connect and UberPool trips to and from transit stops.

As well as allowing riders to schedule a Connect minibus journey, the Uber app will also display real-time transit departure information and any qualifying TAM discounts for trips on Connect or UberPool (and UberX while Uber shared rides are unavailable due to COVID-19). TAM says it plans to partner with local employers to provide additional mobility options for employee commute programs.

Marin Transit has been piloting an app-based on-demand microtransit service since May 2018 and concurrently, TAM has supported a first- and last-mile coupon program to/from Marin SMART rail stations with Lyft.

Cody Lowe, Planning Analyst, Marin Transit, told Cities Today: “Marin Transit and TAM decided to conduct a joint competitive public procurement for a technology platform to support these programs as the current contracts expire at the end of June. Uber was awarded the contract due to its ability to integrate Marin Transit and TAM’s programs into one app.

“TAM and Marin Transit are excited to test and learn from Connect2Transit in partnership with Uber.”

The service will begin from July 1.

New direction?

Although the new deal is a relatively small one for Uber in financial terms, it could signal a potential new revenue stream for the company, which has cut over a quarter of its workforce since the COVID-19 crisis began, with the pandemic hitting its ride-share business hard.

Uber’s relationship with cities hasn’t always been smooth and it has clashed with several around the world over issues such as safety, licensing and data but in the latest initiative, the company stresses a co-operative approach.

“Transit agencies are the backbone of cities,” said Tsay. “Whether it’s first or last-mile programs, on-demand, or SaaS, we see a bright future together where we can do more for riders in communities across the world.”

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