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Sarasota Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020 3 months ago

Solutions to SCAT may include ride-hailing service

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Upgrades to Sarasota County's transit system may include partnerships with services such as Uber or Lyft.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

Uber and Lyft could soon be more than a private way to get around town. They might be integrated into Sarasota County’s public transportation system.

Sarasota County is exploring the possibility of a new transit system that would increase the county’s network of service.

Currently, the county has one main mode of public transportation: the bus. However, with the new concept the county is considering, the service could link with alternative modes of transportation, such as an Uber or Lyft or similar services.

Plans to improve the efficiency of Sarasota County Area Transit System have been in the works for years. In July 2018, commissioners voted to solicit bids from private companies interested in operating portions of SCAT. However, the county decided against privatization in 2019.

Now commissioners hope this new mobility network will provide residents with a more efficient service while increasing taxpayer value, something Ehren Bingaman, a representative from county-hired consultant TransPro, said is possible.

“The introduction of this new demand-response type service would allow folks to make connections that are curb to curb and are more frequent,” Bingaman said. “This service could create a 10% increase in customer trips with a service that is 38% less reliant on public subsidy.”

TransPro consultants estimated that in fiscal year 2019, the county spent approximately $20.5 million on its fixed-route system, with an average cost per service hour of about $100. With various factors, such as buses on little-used routes, TransPro consultants estimated there is a $4 million cost of ineffective service.

The new concept places emphasis on improving the efficiency of the core fixed routes.

It would then take those savings and reinvest them into the introduction of a countywide demand and response option, such as Uber or Lyft, and the investment into mobility hubs.

In its basic format, residents who live or work far from a bus stop would be driven to a stop via Uber or Lyft then ride the bus along a main core route for one fare. 

Although county commissioners showed support for what they called an innovative plan, they did so with some trepidation.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler expressed concerns that some residents who have no need for public transportation would use the ride-hailing service provided by the county, which costs the county and taxpayers.

“I can afford that ride service, but if I know the county is paying for it, I’m going to drop that code in, and now you’re bringing in a new rider that we may not have wanted to bring in,” Ziegler said.

 “Now we’re taking the cost of that ride from my pocket into the taxpayer’s pocket.”

Bingaman said that as the county draws contracts with outside companies, it can define limitations for the service .

“I can’t stress enough that people will take advantage of this system in an incorrect way,” Commissioner Al Maio said. “I’d like to see an imaginative solution to deter those people who have never stepped on our buses and suddenly want the free Uber ride.”

Bingaman said the county could consider caps to the ride-hailing service or could ensure that those who use the ride service make a connection at a mobility hub, which would deter regular users who would take the service straight from their home to their final destination.

Commissioners said they didn’t want to place restrictions on how many times a person can use the service because some people might need it to travel daily to work, but they said some restrictions to the structure of the service might help ensure the service is used based on need.

Commissioners directed the staff to look into the viability of the network while ensuring it is accessible to all users and that potential partnerships leave the county open to future innovation.

Over the next year, county staff will meet with stakeholders and create a specific concept design to then be approved by the commissioners.

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