The Newest Public Transportation In Town: Uber

Apr 9, 2016
Originally published on April 12, 2016 12:45 pm

Residents in Altamonte Springs, just outside of Orlando, have a new public transportation option — Uber.

The city will be the first in the country to partially subsidize Uber fares. The city will cover 20 percent of any ride beginning or ending in Altamonte Springs — 25 percent for rides to or from the local commuter rail station. An earlier plan to build an on-demand bus system fell through.

The Uber service started March 21. NPR's Scott Simon talks to City Manager Frank Martz about the new public-private partnership.


Interview Highlights

How is it working?

It's working so far good. Our residents [and] our business owners like the fact that Uber puts transit options in their hands. They don't have to rely on public transit, they don't have to rely on the fixed schedules, they don't have to change their lives to fit the transit model. The transit model in this case can be reshaped by their choice and they love that.

Does that run the risk of putting more cars on the road?

Some initial studies suggest that one Uber car can take four regular cars off the road. We don't know if that's true, but we certainly are looking forward to seeing how congestion management can be affected by user choices.

How do you pay for all this?

The city had $1.5 million allocated to the FlexBus project that Lynx (the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority) did not move forward with, so we are using dollars that are already earmarked for transit. And we have several large businesses in Altamonte Springs who have also contributed, so we suspect that this will be largely private-sector funded at the end of the year.

Will there be surge pricing?

I have a very free-market viewpoint on that and I've been asked that question. How does the city feel about surge pricing? And my response is in the private sector, if it becomes too expensive to be used, no one will use it and the market will force the price down. It's a supply and demand dynamic. So our viewpoint is if private sector is ever going to help fill public roles, the public input through consumer choices is going to be key. So if Uber wants to be successful long term or Lyft or anyone else, they're going to have to provide a good product at a good price. So if the surge pricing gets too high people won't take it.

Will there be background checks?

Yea, in fact, our contract with Uber requires them to do background checks on all of the drivers who operate inside of Altamonte Springs. By example, we do background checks on people who work in our parks, and from time to time, people do terribly horrible things. You do your best to protect everyone from that and that's what we've done here. And to Uber's credit, they've agreed to do background checks as part of the contract, so we're very thankful for that.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Residents in Altamonte Springs, which is just outside of Orlando, have a new public transportation option - Uber. The city will be the first in the country to partially subsidize Uber fares. They'll cover 20 percent of any ride that begins or ends in Altamonte Springs, 25 percent if you're going to or from the local commuter rail station. We're joined now by the city manager, Frank Martz. Mr. Martz, thanks very much for being with us.

FRANK MARTZ: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Did this all happen because you were denied $2 million from the Florida Transit Authority to build a bus system to and from the train station?

MARTZ: The Central Florida Transit Authority bollixed up a transit project we'd been working on, so yes, the need still remained and we looked to the private sector and Uber to try to serve that opportunity to shape behaviors. So yes, that's exactly how it happened.

SIMON: Service started on March 21, I'm told. How's it working?

MARTZ: It's working so far good. Our residents like, our business owners like, the fact that Uber puts transit options in their hands. They don't have to rely on public transit. They don't have to rely on the fixed schedules. They don't have to change their lives to fit the transit model. The transit model in this case can be reshaped by their choice, and they love that.

SIMON: Does it run the risk of just putting more cars on the road though?

MARTZ: Some initial studies suggest that one Uber car can take four regular cars off the road. Now, we don't know if that's true, but we certainly are looking to see - looking forward to seeing how congestion management can be affected by user choices.

SIMON: Are these shared ride, presumably?

MARTZ: Yes, they have the opportunity to be shared ride or individual ride. In either regard, they take that car off the road in place of the one car that takes people around.

SIMON: And how do you pay for all this?

MARTZ: The city had $1.5 million allocated to the FlexBus project that Lynx did not move forward with. So we are using dollars that are already earmarked for transit. And we have several large businesses in Altamonte Springs who have also contributed. So we suspect that this will be largely private-sector funded at the end of the year.

SIMON: Nettlesome question among a lot of people who use Uber, surge pricing?

MARTZ: I have a very free-market viewpoint on that. And I've been asked that question, how does the city feel about surge pricing? And my response is, in the private sector, if it becomes too expensive to be used, no one will use it and the market will force the price down. It's a supply and demand dynamic.

So our viewpoint is if private sector is ever going to help fill public roles, the public input through consumer choices is going to be key. So if Uber wants to be successful long term or Lyft or anyone else, they're going to have to provide a good product at a good price. So if the surge pricing gets too high, people won't take it.

SIMON: Bus drivers, particularly for municipalities, go through background checks that are considered to be reliable. I don't have to tell you there's been some dissatisfaction in some places with Uber drivers not having to go through a similar kind of process. I wonder if you have some of those guarantees in place for your program.

MARTZ: Yeah, in fact our contract with Uber requires them to do background checks on all of the drivers who operate inside of Altamonte Springs. By example, we do background checks on people who work in our parks. And from time to time, you know, people do terribly horrible things. You do your best to protect everyone from that, and that's what we've done here. And to Uber's credit, they have agreed to do background checks as part of the contract. So we're very thankful for that.

SIMON: Frank Martz is the city manager of Altamonte Springs, Fla. Thanks so much for being with us and happy trails.

MARTZ: Thank you so much. I appreciate your interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.