The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s new partnership between The Ride and both Uber and Lyft has moved from pilot phase to a full program available to all customers eligible for paratransit services. Over the past five months, the pilot program has provided 10,000 rides covering 45,000 miles in 133 zip codes.
The MBTA operates public transportation in Greater Boston and its Ride service provides paratransit, or supplemental transportation, to disabled customers. However, the cost to maintain the heavily subsidized Ride service at its current level was “unsustainable” according to Diogo Lousa, the MBTA’s transportation innovation manager. The pilot program, started last September with ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft, offers an on-demand option for these customers. Customers who take The Ride must book at least a day in advance, but using the ride-hailing services gives them the option of booking rides almost immediately and at a lower cost.
Last month, anyone eligible for the Ride became eligible to take part in the program. Currently, the Ride provides an average of 5,000 daily trips for approximately 42,000 regular customers.
This partnership with Uber and Lyft is the first one in the United States, according to the MBTA, and comes at a time when the agency is looking to close its $42 million budget deficit by potentially cutting weekend commuter rail service and reducing trips on The Ride.
MBTA transportation innovation manager Diogo Lousa, a 2016 MIT Sloan Fellows graduate, discussed the pilot program and the partnership.
What has been the total estimated savings for the MBTA since the pilot began? And what’s been the savings for the customers? The pilot has saved roughly $40,000 for the MBTA. The program has also enabled customers to take 28 percent more trips, with a 6 percent overall cost reduction. Average cost per individual trip is down by 80 percent. Since January, overall cost reduction is closer to 20 percent.
The average cost to the customer is $4.38, as opposed to what the Ride premium non-Americans with Disabilities act trip costs, which is $5.25. The pilot started as an opt-in with 400 riders. For pilot customers, there has been an 18 percent reduction in traditional Ride trips since the start of the program.
Can a Ride customer who does not own a smartphone participate in this program? It’s not a completely tech-savvy customer base, and there is an equity component, so this service can’t only be for smartphone users. With Lyft, we came up with Lyft Concierge, which is a call-in option. You can make a phone call to a call center and book the Lyft trip just as you were booking in the app. Uber took a different approach and provided a limited number of free smartphones. At the moment of the sign-up, an Uber customer can request a smartphone. Customers are eligible to sign up for either Uber or Lyft according to their preferences.
Will the traditional Ride service go away? The Ride paratransit service is required by federal law and will be there for the door-to-door service. The program is an alternative to existing Ride paratransit service and will not offer the same set of services as the Ride. Lyft and Uber will not completely replace The Ride, [but] it is an alternative that Ride users have. Customer usage of Uber or Lyft has no impact on Ride eligibility.
What if a rider needs a special van or has a service animal? Wheelchair-accessible vehicles are available in both platforms in the entire Ride service area from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.
By law, drivers cannot discriminate and must accept service animals. Both companies, together with MBTA, have been working to educate and monitor drivers. Uber and Lyft have policies in place in case drivers deny rides due to a service animal.
What is the best thing about this program? It has the potential to change paratransit customers’ mobility and sense of independence. MBTA and its partners have been able to improve customer experience, provide broader and more convenient access to jobs, social endeavors, and education. The MBTA has received great feedback and a lot of attention from the transit industry nationwide to learn and identify how this program can be replicated.
Lousa spoke on campus at the invitation of the MIT Sloan Data Analytics Club March 6.