Nashville explores linking Uber, Lyft to Metro bus system

The Tennessean
Joey Garrison

Metro Nashville transit officials are in preliminary talks about forming a partnership with ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft in a push to expand mobility options and ways for customers to pay fares.

With representatives of both companies on hand, Metro Transit Authority CEO Steve Bland on Monday made pitches to Mayor Megan Barry and her top aides about a pair of possible pilot projects that would look to take advantage of the rise of Uber and Lyft.

Bland was appearing before the mayor’s administration as part of a week of sessions the mayor kicked off Monday to hear “public investment plans” from Metro department leaders.

One of Bland’s ideas is a new ride-share pilot project that would seek to link MTA’s bus system with Uber and Lyft in order to offer customers so-called “first mile/last mile” services that city bus routes don’t reach.

Under this arrangement, Uber and Lyft would be used to provide riders access to their final destination after they get off a bus or to take riders from their origin to a bus stop. Bland provided an example of offering a “combo rate” priced between $6.40 and $8.40 for a trip from Madison to downtown. The same trip typically costs $12 to $16 by Uber or Lyft and $1.70 by bus.

The plan would cost Metro $500,000 in operating funds to get off the ground.

A second pilot project involving Uber and Lyft would be for a new mobile payment system to allow MTA customers to pay for bus access by card or from their cell phones in the same way they can order ride-share vehicles. The integrated system would cost Metro an estimated $3.65 million.

The idea would also be for a new account-based pay system, enabling commuters to use the same cell phone app or “smart card” to pay for a variety of mobility providers, including MTA, Uber and Lyft. Customers could fund their cards or accounts at ticket-vending machines.

“You could use that card to pay for a variety of services,” Bland said. “We’ve seen starting to emerge, particularly in Europe, the idea of paying a fixed fee for a suite of services.”

Uber and Lyft have similar partnerships in other cities, company officials told members of Barry’s administration on Monday. Bland said both partnerships were also identified during Nashville’s ongoing nMotion strategic transit planning process.

The proposals represent two of MTA’s four “public investment plans,” or PIPs, which Barry’s administration has requested of Metro departments during the ongoing 2016-17 budget planning process. She has challenged departments to think “outside the box” with their ideas on how to improve city services.

Barry has compared the sessions she’s holding this week at the downtown Entrepreneur Center to the ABC show “Shark Tank,” in which investors hear business pitches from entrepreneurs. On Monday Barry sat alongside Metro Finance Director Talia Lomax-O’dneal, her Chief Operating Officer Rich Riebeling, mayor’s office Director of Innovation Nancy Shapiro and Entrepreneur Center founding president Michael Burcham.

“When the mayor said, ‘We want to hear your ideas,’ we said, ‘Well, here’s some stuff that’s percolating in nMotion, so we’ll see what you think,’” Bland said.

Bland has also suggested expanding the hours of operations of buses along 13 high-volume corridors such as Gallatin, Murfreesboro and Dickerson pikes. Service would begin operating between 4 and 4:30 a.m. and cease as late as 1:30 a.m. It would come with a pricetag of $715,912 .

MTA’s fourth plan is to increase the frequency of buses on many of Nashville’s main bus corridors. It would require a capital cost of $6.1 million to purchase new buses and another $1.79 million in operating costs.

Ideas Barry heard from other city departments on Monday included a $13 million pitch by Metro Public Works to beef up Nashville’s number of street engineers.

Public Works officials say the investment is needed in order to more aggressively to improve the timing of the city’s traffic lights. Nashville is updating traffic light timing at 560 intersections.

Metro Nashville Sports Authority Executive Director Monica Fawknotson pitched Barry the idea of adding a new staff member specifically to oversee special events, including weddings, which have become increasingly popular on the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge outside Nissan Stadium. Wedding-goers use parking at the stadium for the events.