Uber and Lyft Partner With Public Transportation

August 16th 2016

Lucy Tiven

Uber has introduced a partnership program with a local public transit agency in Pinellas Park, Florida, Bloomberg reports.

The program aims to help provide affordable travel by offering discounted Uber rides servicing residents of Pinellas Park and East Lake: two areas with limited public transportation access. The rides reportedly cost a maximum of $3 per trip.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) is also subsidizing Uber rides taken by low-income residents after 9:00 pm, and the agency is covering all rides in the county that end at bus or light rail stops during the program's first month.

Cheap and free rides sound pretty good on paper, but the program also sends an alarming message about the state of public transit in the United States.

America's transportation infrastructure is crumbling.

The country's transit systems are funded by contributions at the federal, state, and local levels, and it has recently faced financial obstacles across the board, the Pew Charitable Trusts explained in a February 2015 report.

From Pew:

"Several factors contributed to these revenue declines. Changing driving habits and improved vehicle efficiency have reduced demand for fuel, while gas taxes have not risen to keep up with inflation.

"The federal gas tax has been 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993,6 and as of spring 2014, 24 states had not boosted their gas taxes in a decade or more, including 16 that had gone at least 20 years without an increase.7 At the state level an $8 billion, or 21 percent, drop in vehicle tax revenue in real terms over the same period has also played an important role in transportation funding difficulties.

"These troubles come at a time when the federal government and the states are facing fiscal strain. Federal budget deficits are projected to rise significantly between 2015 and 2024,8 and although state revenue overall now exceeds prerecession levels, it remains below prerecession peaks in 26 states.9 These pressures mean that governments have little leeway in their budgets and face difficult trade-offs if they want to maintain transportation investments."

In December 2015, President Obama signed an infrastructure bill dedicating $305 billion to funding roads, bridges, and rail lines, the Hill reports.

The local government in Pinellas Park had to close down two bus lines in 2014 due to budget cuts, Gizmodo points out.

Though no plans to shut down further bus lines have been announced, the notion that these programs could eventually have that effect isn't unfeasible. The Uber/Lyft pilot program costs $40,000 — a quarter of the cost of running the two aforementioned bus lines.

“We knew we had to start looking for alternative transportation options when our tax referendum did not pass in 2014,” PSTA spokesperson Ashlie Handy told ATTN: over email. “Without the additional revenue that the referendum would have provided, we were left with one option: cutting routes. Knowing that we were going to have to make cuts and possibly leave areas in the county without a form of public transportation is really what led us to Uber.”

These figures may help explain why the program is so attractive to local governments and transit authorities that are strapped for cash, but how it will effect bus riders and those who work in the public sector is less clear.

In an email to ATTN:, PSTA spokesperson Ashlie Handy said that she had not faced any concerns from bus riders unions and that the program would not pose a threat to jobs in the public transportation sector.

She also explained that there were options available to those without smartphones:

“First of all, Uber is not the only choice you have through Direct Connect. As part of the program, you have the option to hail a ride from Uber, United Taxi, or CareRide; our paratransit provider. Riders who choose to use United Taxi have the ability to call in on a regular phone and even pay in cash. Riders who choose to use CareRide will receive a wheel-chair accessible van.”

The PTSA has maintained that the program is meant to supplement public transportation, not replace it.

“It’s not supposed to be something you’d take instead of the bus; it’s supposed to be something you’d take to the bus,” PSTA spokesperson Ashlie Handy told Bloomberg.

The Pinellas Park program is not the first of its kind.

From Gizmodo:

"A similar program has been launched in the neighboring town of Altamonte Springs, as well as one in Centennial, Colorado. The Centennial program will partner with Lyft instead of Uber. Miami-Dade county also hopes to use $575,000 of a federal grant for public transportation on Uber and Lyft subsidies."

Lyft told ATTN: the following via email:

"Today, we announced the launch of this first-of-a-kind pilot, which will provide commuters with completely free Lyft rides to and from the suburban Dry Creek RTD Light Rail Station. This is notable, as it marks the first time a city has fully subsidized TNC rides for commuters, while making the program accessible for users of all income levels and abilities.

"Passengers will have multiple choices for how to book their free Lyft rides under this program, whether they use the Lyft app, book by telephone (no smartphone needed!), or use the new multimodal app offered by our fellow partner, Xerox."


A startup called Bridj has also started running private bus services in Kansas City, Washington, D.C., and Boston, Bloomberg reports.

This startup offers a slightly different transit solution. In Kansas City, Bridj uses drivers hired by the city's transit authority who belong to unions.

"On the one end of the spectrum you have the very traditional mode that we’ve done for 100 years, and on the other one, you have this Ayn Randian free market free-for-all that doesn’t have basic protections in place for the people who are most vulnerable,” Bridj CEO Matthew George told Bloomberg. “We’ve shown that there’s something in the middle.”

While public-private partnerships could help alleviate the financial strain on local, state, and federal governments, it's worth assessing if the solutions they propose are accessible to those who most need public transit.

The state of public transportation most impacts people living in low-income communities, who are disproportionately reliant on public transit because they are less likely to be able to afford cars, the Atlantic explains. Economic mobility is fundamentally linked to physical mobility: reliable, fast public transit allows people to commute to their jobs and schools. When public transportation is lacking, these people are left both literally and economically stuck.

“Without really good public transportation, it's very difficult to deal with inequality,” Harvard University​ professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter told the Atlantic.

Update 8/17/2016 1:35 pm PDT: This story, first published 8/16/2016, was updated to include comments from Lyft and a PSTA spokesperson. We also corrected that Lyft is currently not a part of the Pinellas Park program. Lyft, is, however, partnering with the program in Centennial, Colorado. A portion of this story about smartphone access was also removed when the PSTA and Lyft clarified that there were options for passengers without smartphones over email.