Transit and Ridesharing in Upstate

On February 6, the New York State Senate passed a bill that would legalize ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber in Upstate New York. (Ridesharing has been legal in New York City since 2011.) That bill was based, in part, on a bill that Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed in his FY 2018 budget. Governor Cuomo’s proposal guarantees that a portion of the fees collected from ridesharing will fund upstate transit agencies. The Senate’s bill makes no such guarantee.

Ridesharing provides transportation to people who cannot or will not drive a car. This puts the service in direct competition with upstate transit agencies like Centro. The Post-Standard said as much in an editorial published in the Spring of 2015. The Editorial Board cited “rising costs and stagnant funding” as the cause of Centro’s poor service, and suggested that ridesharing could provide better transportation service for commuters and “the elderly and disabled… at times when the buses aren’t running.”

Centro’s rising costs and stagnant funding are not facts of nature. They are the results of choices made at every level of government from the Common Council to Congress. If rising costs and stagnant funding have created a problem worth solving, then the City and County should assess the mortgage recording tax on all new development, the State should index the State Operating Assistance Fund to inflation, and the Federal Government should expand its funding to cover Centro’s operating costs.

More to the point, ridesharing will not provide better service for the people who rely on public transit the most. These people fall into two categories: those who cannot afford to purchase and maintain their own personal vehicle, and those who cannot operate their own personal vehicle because of a disability.

Centro rides cost $2, and they include option of a free transfer. Ridesharing charges significantly higher fares, and the people who ride the bus for economic reasons cannot afford them. Nevermind that almost half of Syracuse’s low-income households can’t afford an internet subscription, and won’t be able to access any ridesharing apps at all.

Every Centro bus is ADA compliant and accessible to wheelchairs, and its Call-A-Bus service provides more specialized transportation for anybody whose disability keeps them off the bus. Ridesharing is, at-best, only intermittently accessible to the disabled. Philadelphia’s disabled community is lobbying against ridesharing because its members have such a hard time finding handicap-accessible Ubers.

Ridesharing will compete directly with upstate transit authorities, but its cost and the nature of its vehicles mean that it will not be a viable option for the poor or the disabled. Legalizing it without making provision to also support upstate transit will improve transportation options for the better off at the expense of those who need public transportation the most.

All that said, if the state government does legalize ridesharing in Upstate, Centro could work with ridesharing companies to dramatically improve its service. Currently, Centro must provide bus service for the entire County, including its more sparsely populated rural and suburban regions. Many bus routes in these areas are little used, and they draw money away from high-demand routes. If Centro contracts ridesharing companies to provide handicap-accessible service in rural and suburban areas at no extra cost to riders, it could then redirect funds to provide better service along routes through the more densely populated areas where transit can be its most effective.