Flickr user Alfredo Mendez
Could rideshare services like Lyft and Uber provide key commuting services to get more people off the road?
"Baby, you can drive my car!" The Beatles sang these lyrics nearly 50 years ago, and more recently the Jonas Brothers also took up the refrain. Back when the song was first composed, the thought of people using their personal vehicles to transport fare-paying passengers would have been a largely foreign concept.
Fast forward to 2014. Companies such as Uber X, Lyft, SideCar, RelayRides and GetAround have all begun operating in Chicago. Others such as RideScout are on the way. Similar in theory to traditional carsharing companies such as Enterprise CarShare and ZipCar, which provide their own vehicles for members to reserve, the new ridesharing businesses rely on nonprofessional drivers using their personal vehicles to offer rides. Customers often use smartphone apps to reserve and pay for rides. The firms operating these services view themselves as brokers providing dispatch services between drivers and passengers.
While taxi and limousine companies operating in the City of Chicago must conform to a very stringent set of rules, shared ride drivers do not currently have to go through any special licensing or training. The individual companies determine requirements for drivers and vehicles. The City of Chicago recently drafted an ordinance outlining more stringent regulation of these companies.
All of the discussion of rideshare services recently has gotten us at the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) wondering: Could these services act as yet another commuting option? We wanted to find out if these companies are being used for Transportation Demand Management programs around the country, to supplement commuters' options for getting to work. We weren't aware of any of our Commute Options employers using them in the Chicago area, but we did find some examples of them being used on the West Coast.
In the San Francisco Bay area, the City of San Francisco allows some rideshare companies to operate as Emergency Ride Home Program providers. Emergency Ride Home—or Guaranteed Ride Home, as it is also known—is a free City program that provides a "safety net" for San Francisco commuters using sustainable transportation, such as walking, biking, taking transit or ridesharing. When employees of registered businesses use a sustainable commuting mode and experience a personal or family emergency while at work, they can take a taxi, shared taxi service, transit or rental car. CommuteSmart, the City's Transportation Demand Management office, will reimburse the cost of the ride. We've also learned that some of the tech firms in Silicon Valley are using these companies for Emergency Ride Home type trips for employees who work late, and would otherwise be able to get home by transit.
As the Chicago area works to establish a formal Transportation Demand Management program, instituting Emergency Ride Home as a "safety net" for commuters who may use alternate commute modes is under consideration. Based on experiences in the Bay Area, there may be a role for rideshare companies to play in offering these services. And while we are not aware of any of these services providing last mile trips from a rail or bus station to a worksite, could that be a niche market that currently is not being served in many areas?
As the Beatles sang in "Drive My Car," "I got no car and it's breaking my heart, but I've found a driver and that's a start." If rideshare companies can provide one more incentive for employees to commute via sustainable means of transporation, then it's a strategy that may be worth exploring.