Urban mobility has undergone a far-reaching transformation over the past five years. As smartphone ownership has surged across all demographics, the sheer convenience and speed of using transport and wayfinding apps has altered how passengers approach both traditional public transport networks and state-of-the-art services.

Undoubtedly, the future of transport is digital. Transportation network companies (TNC) for instance, Uber and Lyft which are valued at $50bn and $7.5bn respectively, have won over consumers, and their modus operandi is rapidly interlacing with the wider transport network as we know it.

A 2016 study by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA examined the relationship between public transportation and shared modes, including ride-sourcing services, in the seven US cities of Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC.

The report found that, so far, traditional rush-hour commuting times are not threatened by the rise of ride-hailing apps – 21% of respondents said they had used it to commute and 16% used it for shopping or errands – but instead they complement and fill transport gaps, such as during late night social outings, on weekends, or after the passenger has consumed alcohol. Interviews with local transport officials further revealed that, generally, passengers aren’t substituting public transit trips, but rather switching provider of private auto trips or taxi rides.

So far, so good. But seeing that these services are still new to the market, could they pose a threat in the long term?

“Transit agencies trapped in a downward spiral of shrinking budgets, diminished service and declining ridership have begun turning to these companies as complements or even substitutes for traditional modes, especially as a first-and-last-mile to mass transit,” wrote Greg Lindsay, senior fellow at the New Cities Foundation, in his Connected Mobility Roadmap for Public Transport report.

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“This represents both a missed opportunity and a looming threat for public transport, which has struggled to adapt for a litany of historical, political and technological reasons,” he added.

Bridging the gap: where taxi apps and rail operators work together

To date, public transit operators have been eager to collaborate with the likes of Uber and Lyft in partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

Launched in 2010, Uber serves 24 countries on six continents and hit the five billion journeys mark in May this year. During the last seven years, its business strategy has been far from stagnant; the company extended its services in transport analytics and signed various partner schemes with rail operators in big cities.

In 2015, Uber partnered with the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority to offer passengers a $20 value discount on its taxis. A similar scheme was launched in September in Seattle. Although not a revolutionary move in itself, it does mark an important first step into the last-mile coverage problem many transport authorities struggle to address.

“Public transit operators have been eager to collaborate with the likes of Uber and Lyft.”

Last year, Uber shared its application programming interface (API) with the TransLoc Rider app, which allows users to simply input their destination in the Rider app to receive a personalised journey which incorporates a combination of walking, public transport and Uber. The integration debuted mid-February in Memphis, Tennessee and Raleigh Durham, North Carolina.

Lyft, which now covers 94% of the US, has made similar forays into closing that last-mile gap.

The company has so far partnered with Chicago’s Amtrak, Southern California’s Metrolink and The Sacramento Regional Transit to offer passengers the option to book last-mile trips with their train tickets, take advantage of price discounts when booking Lyft via the rail app, or access free rides to and from the train station (for rail pass holders).

For its latest Friends with Transit campaign, launching in November, Lyft said it worked with “transportation agencies nationwide to visualise the impact of Lyft and transit together”. Some of the operators listed as partners include the APTA, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Chicago Regional Transportation Authority.

In a national survey of Lyft passengers, 25% of users said they use it to connect to public transport. Data also shows that around a quarter of the journeys start or end near a public transit station – 33% in Boston, 37% in New York, 25% in Chicago, 20% in Washington DC and 24% in San Francisco.

Trouble on the horizon: re-writing the rules of public transport

In a Guardian editorial at the start of this year, Lindsay asked a loaded question: what if Uber kills off public transport rather than car use?

While that danger isn’t imminent, TNCs certainly are quick to profit from disruptions on railway networks, offering a glimpse into a future where rail services aren’t the top option anymore.

This was apparent during Washington DC’s ‘Metropocalypse’, a system-wide emergency shutdown sparked by an electrical fire in 2016, followed by a year’s worth of emergency repairs that required the closure of entire lines for weeks at a time. In that period, Uber and Lyft were quick to pounce and exploit the disruption, offering fares as low as $5 on their shared ride options. Smaller players including Split and Via went even further, with the latter offering a flat fare of $2.15, the same price as a Metro ride.

Even when networks are running smoothly in cities that have made substantial investments in new services, Lindsay points out that rail ridership has continued to decline unabated.

In January, Uber launched Movement, a website it says “uses Uber’s data to help urban planners make informed decisions about our cities”. Currently available for Manila – the city with the worst traffic in the world – Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, and throughout China, the project uses data from millions of Uber journeys to compare travel conditions across different times of day, days of the week, and months of the year. It analyses how travel times are impacted by big events, road closures or other events happening in a city. The project also used Washington DC’s metro shutdown as a case study.

“City planners face myriad challenges.”

“City planners face myriad challenges, and we hope to help tackle more of them over time,” a press release for Uber Movement read. “We’re excited to partner with city officials, urban planners and research organizations to continue building features that today’s transportation planners need.”

New features launched in Beta mode from both Uber and Lyft show the companies’ intentions to expand their reach and slowly wedge their way into the mass transport market. Initiatives such as uberCOMMUTE, launched in Chengdu, China, or Lyft’s Shuttle, which is currently in Beta mode in San Francisco and Chicago, have been accused of effectively trying to imitate – and replace – the bus.

Of course, TNCs haven’t had a completely smooth ride. The decision from Transport for London to revoke Uber’s licence in the capital marks the biggest fallout between a public service operator and a ride-hailing app – but there is no denying that urban travel has now been changed forever.

A vision of MaaS

Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is the hottest new subject on everyone’s lips, and an ardent topic of conversation across the transport sector.

Officially defined as a shift from personal vehicles to mobility solutions that are consumed as a service, MaaS is currently an aspirational concept. But it envisions a future where public transit networks are so convenient and so interconnected that they effectively render cars obsolete in the city, and cover every last mile between origin and destination.

Initiatives in this field are few and far between, and have had mixed success.

On the one hand, there’s Sweden’s UbiGo, where in 2013, 70 households in Gothenburg signed up for a one-stop-shop transport payment, procuring everyday travel in volume as part of a six-month trial. Also described as ‘Spotify for everyday travel’, users could buy credit to be used across all transport modes in the city. The exercise proved so popular that the service is now launching in Stockholm at the beginning of 2018.

In Los Angeles, a less successful trial saw the GoLA app attempt to integrate all the available options of getting around the second-largest metro area in the US. While Lyft and Uber initially agreed to be included, Uber pulled out of the scheme just before launch.

While it’s still early days, the power of ride-sharing apps to disrupt the urban transport model cannot be denied.

As Lindsay points out, “it’s not enough to close one’s eyes and wait for TNCs, technology companies and other private mobility operators to remake the world in their image.”

A combination of leadership, initiative, digital know-how and expert data gathering and sharing is imperative for rail operators in the years to come – because passengers are sure to move on, with or without them.