CA: GET weighs switch to private ridesharing

June 18, 2024
A public-private partnership proposed for approval Tuesday would help Bakersfield's public bus system catch up with demand for its popular but operationally expensive door-to-door shuttle service.

Even people who don't normally take the bus may get on board with this.

A public-private partnership proposed for approval Tuesday would help Bakersfield's public bus system catch up with demand for its popular but operationally expensive door-to-door shuttle service.

At a late-afternoon public hearing, the board of Golden Empire Transit District will consider stopping the agency's 5-year-old microtransit service and replacing it with vouchers good for up to 40 rides per month on Uber or Lyft. GET would pitch in $2 to $7 per ride.

The pilot program proposed to kick off in August would not eliminate the door-to-door service GET plans to continue offering passengers in wheelchairs. But for the rest, it could be the end of service calls that too often meet with apologies that all shuttles are full and unavailable to pick up additional riders.

GET rolled out on-demand, door-to-door service in 2019; it lately provides an average of about 325 rides per day, capping fares at $7 for trips up to 10 miles, and $15 for longer rides.

But lately, an average of 1 in 3 customers requesting pickup is told to call back later because the system is operating at full capacity.

What's more, the district's new chief executive says the shuttles carry a net public cost of $52 per ride — money he said would be better spent improving local fixed-route service, which he plans to do.

CEO Michael Tree won't be surprised if people who don't use GET service suddenly see it as an option, such as when they're out having drinks and not ready to drive themselves home.

"It's a public subsidy program, and to the extent people can take advantage of that and stay safe and save their lives," he said, "why not use it?"

GET board member Cathy Abernathy said by email Friday she was not ready to make a determination on the proposal but that she is "a strong advocate of more efficient use of resources, rather than large buses which are not feasible in a community where the worksites are spread out across the city as well as miles outside the city."

The idea is to have customers pay the first $3 toward fares costing up to $8, and have GET pick up the rest. For rides costing more than that, GET would pay no more than $7, leaving the passenger to cover the remainder. Service would run from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Tree said Uber and Lyft have said they have the capacity to serve GET's customers and are prepared to begin the program, which he noted would probably run for at least a year on a trial basis, with quarterly board updates.

Adopting the new program would save GET $2.8 million per year, Tree estimated. He figures the new program would cost the district $1 million per year.

To sign up, customers would be asked to fill out a survey before receiving an email with a voucher code for use on Uber's or Lyft's smartphone app. A trial offer is proposed that would give passengers a single-use code.

GET expects response times to shrink from an average of 18 minutes on its existing service to no more than 15 minutes with Uber. It says Lyft offers a "concierge service" for scheduling rides in advance.

Similar programs are run by other public transit agencies in Northern and Southern California, with more or less public financial support.

A GET customer who has made use of its microtransit program, Chris Fendrick, sees the pilot program as a "great alternative" to the existing shuttles.

"Whatever gets our nondriving people around the city to appointments," he said, "I'm definitely in support of."

He called the microtransit system GET operates now a "steal of a deal." Even if the proposed program isn't as generous, it would help passengers with at least some of the cost of, for instance, a $30 ride from the Amtrak bus station downtown to Seven Oaks.

"If they're able to subsidize some of that, I would support that," he said.

Tuesday's board meeting starts at 4:30 p.m. at GET's headquarters, 1830 Golden State Ave. There will also be a public hearing on the district's proposed 2024-25 budget.

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