Staff Columnist

Uber-style service could complement - or replace - city buses

An Iowa City Transit bus sits at a stop on Washington Street in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
An Iowa City Transit bus sits at a stop on Washington Street in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

There are many gaps in Iowa City’s transit services, according to a new study. The private sector could soon provide a solution.

Students in the University of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning recently published a policy guidebook for promoting and regulating the future use of automated vehicle technology. It includes a robust set of recommendations for policy, infrastructure and traffic regulations.

One of the researchers’ primary goals is to make transportation services more easily accessible to the whole community, especially to people in low-income neighborhoods that are not well-served by existing services.

Given the current state of automated vehicle technology, it is an aspirational document, calling to fully integrate automated vehicles in the local transit fleet sometime after 2030. One proposal could help in the meantime, though — partnering with ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft to fill gaps.

It has been repeatedly noted in recent years that Iowa City offers no Sunday bus service, and limited service on Saturdays and weekday evenings.

The new report also explains that a significant portion of Iowa City’s roads are not accessible by transit, assuming a quarter-mile walking distance to and from bus stops. At the same time, a significant portion of existing stops have zero or very few users on an average day.

That is not surprising. The city has many of miles of roads, and buses are expensive to operate, especially when they require human drivers who expect to be paid.

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Authors of the automated vehicles study suggest the city should offer vouchers for low-income residents to use ride-share apps to connect to existing bus transit lines. When and if ride-share companies adopt automated vehicle technology, eliminating the need for paid drivers, costs are likely to decrease.

It’s a good idea, but I hope city leaders will study the feasibility of an even bolder project — ditch fixed-route buses altogether and provide fully on-demand transportation service.

Arlington, Texas is one of the first communities in the United States to introduce such a program. Instead of hiking taxes to pay for a bus fleet, city leaders decided in 2017 to partner with the ridesharing company Via. Residents can now hail a ride through a smartphone app or with a phone call, and for a flat rate of $3, a six-passenger van picks them up and takes them where they want to go.

That city has seen some short-term success with its ride-share project. Around 13,000 locals have established accounts, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in February.

Still, it largely is an untested idea. Local governments looking to replicate the Texas model it will need to consider a wide range of factors, including cost, accessibility and impact on traffic congestion.

Given the steep costs of the status quo — the city’s 2020 budget includes $7.6 million in transit expenditures — all alternatives should be considered.

I predict someday in my lifetime, we will remember today’s buses — huge, mostly empty vehicles, dropping people off several blocks away from where they want to go — and we will scoff at how inefficient it was.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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