GoTriangle is betting that a free ride on Uber or Lyft will get people to ride the bus

The GoTriangle shuttle buses in Research Triangle Park will be retired this summer, when the agency plans to begin paying for Uber and Lyft rides for bus riders in the park.
The GoTriangle shuttle buses in Research Triangle Park will be retired this summer, when the agency plans to begin paying for Uber and Lyft rides for bus riders in the park. GoTriangle

With dozens of secluded office buildings scattered over 7,000 acres, Research Triangle Park has never been an easy place to take the bus.

Now GoTriangle, the regional transit agency, wants to make it more convenient by teaming up with ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft to take riders between bus stops and their offices.

Starting in August, GoTriangle plans to pay up to $10 for bus riders to take either Uber or Lyft that last mile or so to and from work through a program it calls Transit Connect. The offer will be good only within the RTP zone now served by GoTriangle’s shuttle service, which will be discontinued.

The four shuttle buses will be retired and their drivers reassigned, saving about $200,000 a year even with the ride-sharing payments.

“We’re looking to be more cost-effective,” said Jenny Green, a transit service planner for GoTriangle. “With the Transit Connect program, our goal is to provide the same number of trips as we were with the RTP shuttles, but do it at a much lower cost per trip.”

A few years ago, about 180 people a day were riding the RTP shuttles, which circulated on regular routes around the park during peak commuting hours. When that ridership slipped to about 110 a day, GoTriangle introduced Go OnDemand, which ended the fixed routes and allowed riders to call or use an app to summon a shuttle instead. The hope was that the added flexibility would entice more people to use the shuttles.

Starting August 6, those 13 to 18 can use a Youth GoPass to ride GoTriangle, GoRaleigh, GoCary or GoDurham buses free.

But shuttle ridership continued to decline over the last year or so, to about 80 people a day, Green said.

Transit ridership has been shrinking nationwide, and there’s some debate over whether the rise of Uber and Lyft is a factor. In 2016, the American Public Transportation Association published a study that concluded that ride-sharing services tended to complement rather than compete with public buses, light-rail and commuter trains.

But since then, others have found a connection between ride-share and declining transit ridership. Researchers at the University of Kentucky examined seven large cities and concluded recently that each year after companies like Uber and Lyft enter a market, commuter rail ridership can be expected to decrease 1.3 percent on average and bus ridership decline 1.7 percent.

Still, the popularity of ride-sharing has prompted transit agencies like GoTriangle to look for partnerships. Mary Kate Morookian, a GoTriangle transit planner, said the RTP service is modeled in part on one started several years ago in Pinellas County, Fla., which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater. The Florida program aims to extend the reach of the bus system by paying up to $5 for riders to take a ride-share or taxi to or from designated bus stops.

“We want to make sure that if they take the bus to work, they will get to work,” Morookian said. “We’re confident this is a good solution for folks and will encourage people to take the bus.”

The Uber and Lyft apps will know that riders are inside the RTP zone and provide an option for Transit Connect. Rides that extend outside the zone won’t be free. Though the details are still being worked out, GoTriangle plans to make the rides available to and from four designated bus stops: the Regional Transit Center; T.W. Alexander Drive and South Miami Boulevard; N.C. 54 and South Alston Avenue, and N.C. 54 and Slater Road.

Transit Connect is one of several changes GoTriangle plans in the coming year, including free fares for people 65 and older and an app that will let people pay for their tickets using their cellphone. For more information about the proposed changes, go to gotriangle.org/service-changes.

The savings from eliminating the RTP shuttle service will help pay for one of those changes: more frequent service on the express buses between Chapel Hill and Raleigh and between Durham and Raleigh.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.